The Code of Writing

Vikram Chandra’s quest to recover his Indian self

01 January, 2014

IN THE CIRCUITOUS WAY one sometimes encounters writers, out of step with the chronology of their output, I knew all about Vikram Chandra’s writerly creed before I read anything of his fiction. I’d been dazzled by ‘Cult of Authenticity’, the 2000 Boston Review essay in which he undertook to counter (“grind … under my iron heel” is the more categorical phrase he used) the well-known critic Meenakshi Mukherjee’s charge that he had tacked titles such as “Artha”, “Kama” and “Dharma” onto his stories in order to flaunt their Indianness before his Western audience; these terms, Mukherjee said, were not intrinsic to his characters’ worlds. Chandra’s defense of his art was spirited but also simple in that he just pointed to the Indian realities from which this art took its inspiration.

From one writer’s championing of his choices, however, the piece grew into a probing examination of what it means to be writing in a multilingual culture. For Chandra had quickly realised that a rebuttal based on personal experience would be inadequate. There is apparently an a priori inauthenticity in being an Anglophone writer. You are suspect for writing in English and whatever you write in English can only be suspect because you are, in Mukherjee’s view, cut off from “the normal ground conditions of literary production, where a culture and its variations, a language and its dialects, centuries of oral tradition and written literature, all interact to create a new text.” In other words, Indian writers in English are, to restate what is now a time-honoured allegation, without an organic community, remote from the so-called real India. Chandra went on to boldly dissect the contradictions and insecurities behind this position and ended the piece with a rousing call to fellow writers and artists to “ignore the commissars” and embrace all subject matter as their own.

I later read Love and Longing in Bombay (1997), the collection of five novellas with the titles that had offended Mukherjee, and discovered an interestingly oblique relationship between the ideas behind the titles and the stories. ‘Dharma’ for instance was about an exemplary major general who has followed the call of dharma through his unwavering bravery in war. This pursuit of duty is disrupted by a ghost from the past, and no metaphorical ghost either but a chillingly real one, dogged by which the major general starts to crumble. The question here seemed to be: how to combine the objective pursuit of dharma with the messy subjectivity of a personal past. In ‘Artha’, a character asks, “Why is everything made of money?” and greed and ambition drive the tale. But the piece is also an intense love story, its minor and fragile beauties set against the city’s harsher lucre-driven dreams.

Chandra’s traditional Hindu titles suggested a unity of purpose to the stories, but what leapt out was in fact their great variety. He was trying out a range of styles and voices—from the decidedly Hemingway-influenced rhythms in ‘Dharma’ to the archly comic tones of ‘Shakti’, a marvellous investigation of how, through the powerful means of club get-togethers and high society parties, intrigue or “masala grinding” makes and breaks people. Chandra was testing his powers in Love and Longing, and testing them via an idea of Bombay as a place teeming with stories. The turns that his prose takes, leaping from detail to detail of life after life, is impelled by this idea—that the multifarious nature of the city is an inexhaustible narrative, that life in Bombay lends itself, above all other arts, to the art of storytelling. Hence the trope of the narrator, a retired defence joint-secretary called Subramaniam, who sits in a Bombay bar narrating these five stories to his somewhat shadowy audience. And hence a subsequent novel like the 900-page Sacred Games (2006)—inevitably, Bombay’s stories, the story of Bombay, needed this larger canvas. Sacred Games is about crime and punishment in Bombay, but is also an attempt to net the city in fiction. The open-ended voluminousness of the book makes one feel that the more Chandra tells us, the more there will be left to tell. This potentially infinite project would not be out of place in a parable about the paradoxes of narrative by one of Chandra’s heroes, Jorge Luis Borges.

“Give up nothing, and swallow everything,” Chandra tells us in ‘Cult of Authenticity’. It seemed to be his way of putting down those who would clip his wings, but reading his fiction I also began to see how this call was axiomatic to his writing; it was not just counsel but manifesto. Chandra’s first book, the novel Red Earth and Pouring Rain (1995), which I turned to next, further reinforced the sense that he was trying to swallow everything. The novel features real life European mercenaries on the make in India during the decline of the Mughals and the rise of the Marathas, and historical figures such as the famous Anglo-Indian captain James ‘Sikander’ Skinner and the feisty Begum Sumroo, ruler of Sardhana. The fictional protagonist is an Avadhi poet called Sanjay Parasher seeking to find his own voice and throw off firangi dominance. Interspersed with this historical thread is the story of three American college students on an impulsive road trip from Los Angeles to Houston. All of this is held together by, among other narrators, a literate monkey and an America-returned youth called Abhay telling their stories in the present, and is shot through with lavish descriptions of war and peace in early modern India contrasting with an edgy Generation X-like ride through empty American lives. The novel is nothing if not Henry James’s “loose baggy monster”. The question is: does it work?

RED EARTH AND POURING RAIN, the author says in his new book, Mirrored Mind: My Life in Letters and Code (Penguin India, 272 pages, Rs 499), was an attempt to write a novel that could do justice to his culturally split self—Indian and Western, modern and premodern. He traces the impulses of his fiction by laying out the social history of computer programming in America and playing this off, oddly yet persuasively, against a detailed account of Sanskrit poetics. The memoir is an attempt to align the two sides of Chandra’s mirrored mind: his interests as a computer programmer and his passions as a novelist.

If Chandra had decided to only write about computers, this would still be a very illuminating book. It turns out that most software professionals, let alone laypersons, have no clue how the binary of zeroes and ones actually works to create the extremely complex digital world that we have come to take for granted. So with the clarity of a good teacher in complete command of his subject, balanced by the perspective of an outsider to whom computing is of cultural as much as technical interest, Chandra shows us what programmers do as well as how they talk and think about themselves.

At the heart of computing—and accounting for Chandra’s interest in it—is, of course, language, which is in some ways the real theme of this book. He demystifies computing and simultaneously reveals how acutely complex it has become in pursuit of the goal of bringing its language closer to human language. The programmer’s genius at taming this complexity has given rise to the myth of him as conquering hero. The Silicon Valley-generated image of the tough-minded, solitary male geek has become a self-serving one, and is particularly inimical to women with an interest in computing. As Nathan Ensmenger, another historian of computing, says in a quote in Mirrored Mind, “The primary selection mechanism used by the industry selected for antisocial, mathematically inclined males, and therefore antisocial, mathematically inclined males were overrepresented in the programmer population; this in turn reinforced the popular perception that programmers ought to be antisocial and mathematically inclined (and therefore male), and so on ad infinitum.”

The interest in language takes Chandra to that arch grammarian of Sanskrit, Panini, whose work had considerable impact on modern Western linguistics and thence on programming languages such as FORTRAN. Following Panini, Sanskrit became highly codified, which meant that it remained static over millennia as a formal language even as it quickly atrophied as a language for literary expression. Unlike the organic and messy way in which languages develop over time, in the case of Sanskrit, the emphasis on rules meant that even the poets were concerned less with innovation and more with precision. Loss of linguistic flexibility could mean loss of imagination. The poet and critic Vijay Nambisan has described the degeneration of Sanskrit with characteristic asperity. “After Natya-Sastra, no shades of grey were possible in Sanskrit literary composition … Heroes were all good, villains all bad, heroines always pure and hard done by. If the hero did something wrong it was because of a divine curse or loss of memory. Good always won in the end, evil always came away with hanging head or worse. That dramatists of the calibre of Kalidasa took this seriously shows perhaps the power of the formula that Sanskrit had become.”

And yet it was the Sanskrit theoreticians who came up with one of the most sophisticated concepts about aesthetic experience, at the heart of which is something that eludes language altogether—dhvani. Dhvani means “to reverberate”; it is that ineffable, suggestive quality attached to all great art which causes it to resonate within the viewer or reader. What does dhvani give rise to? Ideally rasa, the idea foundational to Indian aesthetics. Rasa is the depersonalised, meta-experience of experiencing the emotions generated by a work of art and thereby getting the ultimate pleasure out of these emotions. Chandra goes into rasa theory and then finds himself drawn to Tantrism and its philosophy of pleasure.

Driving these investigations is, quite straightforwardly, an attempt to recover an Indian self. Chandra revisits the elements that went into the writing of his first novel, Red Earth. He looks back at his childhood in Bombay and later education in America, trying to nail what it means to be Indian. Colonialism and modernism—Chandra often treats the two concepts interchangeably—ridiculed and suppressed longheld Indian ideas about beauty, sex, pleasure, about methods of storytelling and uses of language. Yet they remain, however subliminally, part of the Indian outlook, and it is this outlook, Chandra says in the memoir, that he tried to reclaim in Red Earth. This was not a political project but a personal one.

I was surely a postmodern lover of modernist fiction. Yet, in my creative urges, in the deepest parts of myself, I also remained somehow stubbornly premodern … I wasn’t only trying to ironize psychological ‘realism’ by placing it next to the epic and the mythical, or only to create lo real maravilloso as a critique of bourgeois Western imperial notions of the real … This multiply layered narrative was how I lived within myself, how I knew myself, how I spoke to myself.

Despite this conviction, however, or maybe because of its overdetermining effects, Red Earth did not quite achieve this melding of pre and postmodern. In the India sections of the book, there are stories within stories and narrators galore but these seem to exist mostly to draw attention to themselves and to the premodern role they are performing. This role is to tell a story—storytelling being the great Indian tradition—and to make no distinctions between the fantastic and the ordinary, the mythological and the historical. So we have, among other things, the typing monkey with an interesting past life (Chandra talks in the memoir of his believing “implicitly and stubbornly in reincarnation despite a devotion to Enlightenment positivism”); charmed, fertility-causing laddoos; children who converse with cobras; women who breathe horses from their mouths; men who are immune to bullets; and mortals who walk with gods.

Unfortunately, Chandra bunged in too many such supernatural tics and spent too little time bringing each to life. In any attempt at magic realism, the realism must saturate the magic and vice versa for the whole to convince. Further, realism is a style of writing and not necessarily an ideology about the pre-eminence of the real. Realism can be pressed into the service of describing the unreal too. Thus it is that a whole host of fictional characters—from the White Rabbit to Gregor Samsa—become unforgettable. And thus it is (to make a comparison that seems unavoidable) that we buy the idea that Salman Rushdie’s Saleem Sinai is selectively telepathic, able to tune into other midnight’s children, all of whom are similarly endowed with magical abilities.

Red Earth has characters who are metaphors too. The poet Sanjay, caught between Indian and English worlds, hears voices and sees double. He is burdened with “the curse of a life inside that competed for attention and defeated the world outside, dreams that refuse to be quieted, that unwanted double-vision that brought encounters with gods and half-knowledge of things to come”. But this is not all. He must also suffer the English language, which results in him swallowing whole stacks of printer’s type without suffering too many ill effects, eating an Englishman’s diaries, and being able to speak like an Englishman despite having no tongue. The metaphorical burden of these attributes flattens him—he becomes too much an idea, or a whole novel’s worth of ideas, and too little a person. The American segments are a relief from this relentless strangeness but on the whole the novel remains more an illustration of Chandra’s belief in his multiple selves and less a translation of this belief into a dhvani-rich fiction.

Yet the question remains vital. What can the Indian novelist take from the past and to what uses can he put it? Reflecting in Mirrored Mind about Sanjay, who predates the introduction of the supposedly colonial concepts of “interiority, reflexivity, and individuality”, Chandra asks, “How did he imagine the self?” This is the question on which Red Earth turns: how to endow premoderns with inner lives? What kind of selves did Indians have before they came into contact with the West? Chandra answers the question by stinting with inner life, by replacing the psychological with the fabulist. Quite apart from the fact that his fabulism is feeble, this approach seems a cop-out. Why must Sanjay in 19th-century India be weird but not Abhay in 20th-century LA? Why must our past be evoked through its most decorative aspects? And where does this pursuit of the “Indian” take us?

THE TERM OFTEN USED to describe Chandra is “storyteller”. In Red Earth he attempted, with mixed results, to explore the nature of storytelling, but in his second book he abandoned this speculative approach to just go ahead and tell the stories he wanted to. The results were the wonderfully dense and detailed worlds of Love and Longing in Bombay. And with Sacred Games, indisputably one of the greatest books on Bombay ever written, he let the stories run riot and then showed us their knotty and overlapping connections with the artistry of a master puppeteer.

The novel’s enormous power derives not just from Chandra’s inventiveness but also his ability to make this inventiveness invisible to the reader, to make the hydra-headed city and its constantly branching narratives feel not just acutely real but completely inevitable. Despite his uncertainty about “bourgeois Western imperial notions of the real”, it is in fact the unrealised potential of realism when writing about a city like Bombay, the endless fictive possibilities within the city’s many social layers, that Chandra grasped and set to work on.

The organising principle in Sacred Games is crime, which in this case is much more than the neat riddle-solving of a conventional crime novel. (Though it is this too—the novel has all the suspense and drama of a good thriller, the painstaking piecing together of a police procedural, and the leaps of imagination required from characters in a detective story.) Chandra’s policeman hero, Inspector Sartaj Singh, is at the centre of the circle; he is the ordinary, workaday figure before whose eyes and through whose hands an enormous swathe of Bombay passes—from mothers wanting their wayward sons straightened out, to petty criminals dreaming in slums, to bloodthirsty dons entangled in the logic of an eye for an eye, to the incognito masterminds at the top for whom crime has become indistinguishable from religion or patriotism and irrelevant unless it can shake up the world.

The epic scale of the novel is perhaps an attempt to capture the dynamic nature of crime itself and how it apparently permeates every crevice of Bombay life. Wrongdoing, illegality and transgression are less criminal acts and more elements in the universal game of survival and self-improvement, requiring finely honed instincts to sustain. Here, for instance, is a minor character called Wasim Zafar Ali Ahmad, visiting the police to find out what they can do for him and vice versa.

Sartaj would pick up the roadside Romeos whose main offence was undoubtedly … their disrespect towards Ahmad. Sartaj would see to them, and Ahmad would give him some information. Ahmad would then be seen in the basti as a man who had police connections, and his name would be heard and more people would arrive at his door, seeking patronage and help, and in turn inflate his influence … All great careers began with these little exchanges … Mutual interest was the lubricating oil that ran the great and small machinery of the world …

Sartaj and his men are as adept at this game as their chameleon friends-cum-foes. What gives them faith that they can stay on top is that they watch harder than the others, they notice details the others don’t, they know “that there were many ways to describe a man”. The policeman’s need for detail becomes the novelist’s, and this is another reason Sacred Games is rife with a hundred thousand details signaling the relevance of the ostensibly irrelevant. Chandra will never merely say that a man turned up at work. He will tell you about the specific taste in this man’s mouth when he wakes, what he reads about in the paper waiting in the toilet queue outside his slum, what is sold in the shops he passes on the way to the bus-stop and how he articulates to himself his feeling for the city, its people and its energy, as he takes the bus to work.

“These prodigious feats of connection and naming, this creation of meaning, give K.D. his reputation, his fame, his place in organization,” writes Chandra of his intelligence officer character KD Yadav. And again this is true of the author himself—the relentless noticing and recording is the hallmark of his genius, too. Talking about how realism or the realistic style creates its effects, the critic James Wood says of seemingly superfluous details, “They are not explicable; in fiction, they exist to denote precisely the inexplicable … [they] have something to tell us about the irrelevance of reality itself … Life, then, will always contain an inevitable surplus, a margin of the gratuitous …” This is one way in which the realist novelist imitates life—by mimicking its surfeit. Sacred Games is a monument to this irreducible quality as represented by the lifeworld of crime in Bombay.

To return, however, to the subject of Mirrored Mind: Chandra’s project of writing fiction that does justice to his Indian side. There is another equally compelling reason for this epic noticing in Sacred Games, and one which goes beyond the stylistic. The moral relativity in the novel has been often remarked upon—instead of good guys ranged against bad guys, we have, as mentioned above, the consistent give and take between them that makes everyone complicit. What sustains this compromised worldview, gives this amorality moral weight, so to speak, is the expansiveness of the storytelling itself. The Indian aesthetic of ceaseless storytelling becomes the ethic of the novel. The hardcore don Ganesh Gaitonde is given as much if not more space in the story as the hardworking cop Sartaj Singh. All characters—good, bad and indifferent—get to have their say, and this equal play becomes a form of empathy. Chandra points out in Mirrored Mind that the experience of rasa—savouring all the emotions expressed in a work of art—is different from empathy as understood in the Western sense. Empathy is the subjective experience of feeling a character’s grief as our own. Rasa leads to the objective “ego-less emotion” that we feel on encountering the character’s grief. Sacred Games undoubtedly yields this rasa, but the moral hollowness at its core leaves us with a bunch of niggling questions.

As in Red Earth and Love and Longing, Chandra uses the trope of the teller and the tale in Sacred Games too—one half of the narrative is an account of the rise and fall of Ganesh Gaitonde, and he is apparently telling this story of his life to Sartaj Singh. But like in the other books, this trope is only meant to signal some supposedly Indian storytelling quirk; it is not really intrinsic to the narrative. We are the real targets of the stories, not their imagined audiences in the books, who appear sporadically and do not really influence the telling. But we, as readers of a modern novel, cannot be this audience in the traditional manner, for the story is not an oral tale. The reader of a novel is less a listener and more an eavesdropper, allowed surreptitiously into the inner world of the novel’s characters. And the novelist is not the familiar, homey village storyteller but, in the famous Flaubertian formulation, like god, “everywhere present but nowhere visible in his work”. Merely informing the reader that they are listening to a story is not going to make them experience the novel differently or be able to better appreciate its Indianness. Chandra calls the novel form “the most sophisticated technology of selfhood”, and says it was one of the instruments used by the colonisers to turn Indians into “proper modern subjects”. Yet the subjectivity of this selfhood remains the cornerstone of the novel. If Indian aesthetics reveal an alternative way of writing fiction, Mirrored Mind does not show what this might be.

But there is also a deeper sense in which Chandra’s project draws from the idea of storytelling as a quintessentially Indian art. In Red Earth this storytelling is portrayed as the very essence of the experienced world. The universe is one, the unity of Brahman, but we mortals cannot appreciate this oneness, so Brahman “bursts into being as differentiation”—and this diversity, this non-unity, takes the form of a story. And in this story people are different and each performs “a different role in Leela, the great cosmic play”. The world as Leela is evident in Sacred Games too. Its purveyor is a smooth-talking swami who urges his acolytes to look beyond the illusory nature of the here and now; the swami preaches apocalyptic violence on the grounds that the world needs to be restored to its original state of unified consciousness.

Marrying the moral license that Leela worshippers give themselves to the hard-edged realities of crime is one of the masterstrokes of Sacred Games, but it nevertheless remains a nihilistic idea, and ultimately, in the light of the swami’s evil designs, a cynical one. Could it have been more? Can the realm of the spiritual—which Meenakshi Mukherjee once accused Chandra of merely flirting with—also yield ideas that transform our very experience of reading? Writing about the difference between the Mahabharata and the Bhagavad Gita, between the epic and the poem, Amit Chaudhuri says:

A narrative might unfold in a linear fashion, or in a manifold and multi-pronged way, as the Mahabharata does. It involves and engages us. The poetic text transforms us; that is, we know something has been changed by the time we finish it … Once we’ve read a poem, we can reread it immediately, and, as it were, relive that transformation. Our repeated experience of this transformation takes place regardless of whether we’ve ‘understood’ the text completely … We don’t necessarily seem to have moved greatly from one point to another by the time we come to the end of a poem; but the poem has moved, achieving its transformative intention by a mixture of inner shifts and repetitions. This is how the Gita works: there are no plot developments, but there are movements …

Chandra dips selectively into classical India to retrieve what he considers aspects of a premodern self. The hard question is: how does a contemporary writer not just pick out elements from this tradition to use as narrative but also internalise these elements in a way that they become part of the subtle “movement” of the text and leave the reader not just with a good story but also a sense of having been transformed?

One movement that Chandra does trace is from the classical or folk to the popular. He speaks of epic tropes that are common to the Mahabharata and Hindi films, and sees Bollywood with its mixed menu of emotions as the perfect embodiment of rasa. This is a familiar connection, though not all writers make it. Chaudhuri, for instance, has written that those who consider Hindi films essentially Indian don’t realise that they are, in fact, a production of the idea of India, “that these forms emerge at a crux and juncture in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when religion and tradition begin to respond to the incursion of capital; that the forms are quite different from the highly impersonal, stylized variations of folk art prior to capitalism …”

Further, this easy slide from pre-modern to popular also creates a yawning elision, which is the modern Indian self. This is the self that has an ambivalent relationship both with the pre-colonial past and those aspects of the present, such as Hindi films, supposedly untouched by the modern. This ambivalence is not necessarily only Indian; it is in the nature of the modern self to be alienated from the past and yearn for it, and in this yearning to find a creative source. For this is also the self that is writing the novel, that undertakes, in Borges’ wonderful phrase (which Chandra quotes in ‘Cult of Authenticity’), “the voluntary dream called artistic creation”. The word “voluntary” reminds us that the modern self is put together, that it is not out there in the past, waiting for us, but a matter of deliberate creation.

Chandra’s curiosity in Mirrored Mind about “premodern” selves is genuine, and the quest described in the book a valid one. But it is perhaps an impossible quest. He says of code that it is “uniquely kinetic. It acts and interacts with itself, with the world. In code, the mental and the material are one. Code moves. It changes the world.” Likewise, the slippery modern self. Given Vikram Chandra’s astonishing powers as a novelist, one hopes that he will someday turn to an examination of this self that so powerfully shapes itself and its world.