We’ve all had this encounter in aeroplanes, at parties, while waiting at the dentist’s lobby. Striking up a conversation with the person at our elbow, we ask the predictable question: “What do you do?”
And get an unsurprising answer: “I’m in software.” To which we nod sagely and change the topic. For, besides a vague image of a programmer peering at a computer screen, typing lines of symbols, we have very little idea about what our new acquaintance actually does. And ironically, although those mysterious codes drive a large part of our lives, we still think of them as remote and esoteric.
It is this irony that Vikram Chandra addresses in Mirrored Mind: My Life in Letters and Code. Chandra describes himself as “a fiction writer who has programmed”. In this book, a whimsical autobiography that meanders its way through questions about coding, writing and beauty, he traces the similarities between his twin obsessions. “Computing has transformed all our lives, but the processes and cultures that produce software remain opaque, alien, unknown,” he says, as he leads his wary reader into the world of algorithms and logic gates, cobol and Clojure. And, of course, the coder as an artist. For Chandra contends that coding is much more than “a series of commands issued to a dumb hunk of metal and silicone and plastic animated by electricity”. It is as much about beauty as about “getting the job done”.
But how did Chandra, a literature student and writer, stumble upon the Big Ball of Mud, Mel the Real Programmer and the beauty of code? “I came to computers while trying to run away from literature,” says Chandra, who describes writing as a wrenching process. “You put each word in place, brick upon brick, with a shimmery sense of what the whole edifice would look like, the shape of the final thing.”
As a graduate student in the US in the 1980s, Chandra needed cash and so worked part-time for a secretarial service. When his office acquired a clunky computer, he began tinkering and developed “a taste for this wizardry”. Soon, he had started a profitable venture setting up computers and writing simple code for everyone from local restaurants to friends. “Programming in America paid for my research and writing,” he says, adding that his hours at the computer allowed him to escape from the uncertainties of writing. “I managed to get through graduate school without taking any loans, finished my novel, found an agent.”
As an insider-outsider in the realm of computing, Chandra has amusing insights. He describes the culture of surly, masculine genius that prevails in the computer industry in the US—attributing it to the early aptitude tests that were heavy on mathematical puzzles and responsible for the influx of weird male geeks and freaks with a fondness for sandals and rudeness. He talks about the rise of the ‘Indian Mafia’ in Silicon Valley. And warns that a huge amount of vitally important code today is “an unwholesome, uncontrollable atrocity, a Big Ball of Mud” that has been patched and repaired so many times that it is impossible to understand.
Equally fascinating are the glimpses he offers into the writing process. Chandra describes himself as a slow and sometimes agonised writer who produces 400 words daily—tunnelling inwards, “shaping the words, fighting through the thickets of cliche”.
Mirrored Mind, however, is not just about coding and writing. Chandra has a lot to say about many things—some trite, some thought-provoking. For example, he spends a considerable number of pages on the rules of Sanskrit grammar, which have kept the language unchanged over millennia. Or the philosopher Abhinavagupta’s theories about the workings of memory that, when directed by a poet, give literature its unique power.
Interesting though they may be, Chandra is unable to weave these asides and digressions into a cohesive narrative. Instead, he seems to grab whatever catches his fancy—a classical Tamil poem, a statistic about student suicides in India, bits from a blog about computer languages, chunky quotes from Indian philosophers, passages from his own novel Red Earth and Pouring Rain—and pegs them untidily onto the central argument. The effect is that of a haphazard clothesline flapping with unconnected thoughts.
All of which makes Mirrored Mind hard work for the poor reader, who lurches from one topic to another, trying to clutch at the slippery strands of logic. And not even Chandra’s undeniable mastery over words makes this book a natural, pleasurable read.