In Conversation with Vikram Chandra

"We have never been modern, and our newer forms—which are all hybrids—never have either."

Vikram Chandra was born in New Delhi and graduated from Pomona College (in Claremont, near Los Angeles) in 1984. His first novel, Red Earth and Pouring Rain, was written over several years while getting an MA at Johns Hopkins and an MFA at the University of Houston. While writing Red Earth and Pouring Rain, Vikram taught literature and writing, and moonlighted as a computer programmer and software and hardware consultant. Red Earth and Pouring Rain received outstanding critical acclaim. It won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book and the David Higham Prize for Fiction.

A collection of short stories, Love and Longing in Bombay, was published in 1997 and won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book; was short-listed for the Guardian Fiction Prize; and was included in “Notable Books of 1997” by the New York Times Book Review. A novel, Sacred Games, was published in 2006 and won the Hutch Crossword Award for English Fiction for 2006 and a Salon Book Award for 2007; it was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction.

Vikram made his nonfiction debut with Geek Sublime: The Beauty of Code,The Code of Beauty published by Graywolf Press in 2014, which was described as an “unexpected tour de force” by the New York Times Book Review. Geek Sublime dwells upon the points of intersection between writing, coding, art, technology, Sanskrit and ancient Indian literature and philosophy.


Naheed Patel: Your latest book, Geek Sublime: The Beauty of Code, The Code of Beauty is quite a literary hybrid: part craft essay, part history of computer programming, part social commentary on Silicon Valley, and part treatise on Sanskrit philosophy. All these various part form a seamless mosaic that works to enlighten and totally fascinate the reader in equal measure. How did you make this magic happen?

Vikram Chandra: As is usually the case with writing, through endless rounds of revision, periods of complete frustration and despair, and fumbling around trying to discover the right shape for what I was trying to build.  I actually found this more difficult to do in non-fiction than I have before with fiction.  When I’m writing fiction, I have the characters to guide me; even though there are moments of unknowing and paralysis, I can always trust that if I’m patient and I keep following the characters, I’ll eventually figure out the architecture.  But with non-fiction, or at least this particular non-fiction, it was much harder.  I didn’t have the linear velocities of a plot to draw me forward, so it was much more—as you say—like building a mosaic, putting small pieces together and trying to see the patterns.  The epiphany about the overall structure came very very late in the process, compared to all my other books, and this was scary.  So much of writing is just keeping faith that you’ll work out what kind of beast you’re actually making, and this can wear on you.

NP: Could you describe your conflict, as a writer of fiction, between your love of American Modernism and your creative urge for “the pre-modern registers of classical Indian literature”?

VC: I like to think of the forms as complementary, rather than in conflict.  The trouble is that modernity and—to some extent—modernism as systems of belief insist on history as a teleological process in which the present always supersedes and wipes out that which existed before.  This is why there has to be a “post-modern” that comes after the modern.  And of course a “post-postmodern.”  No doubt there will be a “post-post-postmodern” as well.  I’m much more sympathetic to Bruno Latour’s line of thought, as outlined in his aptly named book, We Have Never Been Modern.  Latour pushes back against the urge of the self-proclaimed moderns to divide the world into cleanly separated domains: the secular and the sacred, nature and culture, the present and the past, and so on.  He insists that we conceive of our world instead as a network of hybrids made up of social and natural phenomena and discourses.  As any computer geek knows, if you add some nodes to a network, or remove some nodes, you change the topography of the network, but you don’t irrevocably transform the network into something else.  So, as Latour puts it, “Seen as networks, however, the modern world, like revolutions, permits scarcely anything more than small extensions of practices, slight accelerations in the circulation of knowledge, a tiny extension of societies, minuscule increases in the number of actors, small modifications of old beliefs. When we see them as networks, Western innovations remain recognizable and important, but they no longer suffice as the stuff of saga, a vast saga of radical rupture, fatal destiny, irreversible good or bad fortune.”  So modernism—despite how much some of its practitioners might have wanted it to—doesn’t wipe out or obviate older registers of imaginative practice.  Look around: we have these artistic modes all around us, and we lump them together into “genre writing,” or describe them as “primitive” or “exotic” or “traditional” or some such.  And we make invisible the magical, mythical structures that lie just underneath the surfaces of forms we regard as “rational” or “realistic.”  We have never been modern, and our newer forms—which are all hybrids—never have either.  For instance, people wrote novels in the classical world, in India and China and Japan as well as Europe.  The “rise of the novel,” in the Ian Watt sense, has been vastly overstated, and nobody in my English department, at least, seriously believes in that kind of rupture any more.  What we’ve had is the adaptation of a classical form to various impulses flowing through the network that is contemporary culture.

NP: You’ve termed the modern novel as the “most sophisticated technology of selfhood”. According to you, what role did the modern English novel have in shaping Indian selfhood under Colonial Rule?

VC: Oh, I didn’t mean that the modern novel is the most sophisticated insight into selfhood, but that the colonizers certainly thought it was, and therefore introduced it into the colonial curriculum.  So India was the first place that the English novel was actually studied; until then, only the classics had been thought worthy of critical attention. The idea was that the Indian subjects would learn the language, but in doing so they would also be induced to internalize the kind of selfhood and subjectivity that would be most comfortable and amenable to the colonial mission. So as Gauri Viswanathan puts it in the title of her book, the British novels were Masks of Conquest.  She shows “the relationship between the institutionalization of English in India and the exercise of colonial power, between the process of curricular selection and the impulse to dominate, to control.”  From the point of view of the colonized, in order to be “modern,” to prove that you were a participant in modernity, you pretty much had to write texts that fit into the category of “modern novel.”  This is why along with the rise of a local bourgeoisie and the creation of new narratives of nationhood in the territories that were colonized, you always have the local version of the rise of the novel.  And notice that this new form was thought to be intrinsically superior and more adult than the primitive, childlike investigations of the self that had existed prior to colonization.  This becomes especially ridiculous in India, where the investigation of self and consciousness has been a civilizational obsession for thousands of years.  To regard, say, the finely subtle investigations of selfhood by someone like Abhinavagupta as “inferior” to the texts produced by contemporary writers is absurd. It is, to be sure, a different kind of exploration, with very different cultural contexts and assumptions, but the fact that we tend to automatically accept a teleological model of psychological progress just demonstrates how blind we are to our own norms and conventions. And blind also to the inescapable complicity of the form of the novel with the depredations of colonialism.

NP: You reference a number of ancient Sanskrit texts, like Natyashastra, Ashtadhyahi and Dhvanyaloka, in Geek Sublime. How tough was it to get access to good translations of these texts?

VC: Not so easy.  There are some very good translations, like the translation of Anandavardhana’s seminal text and Abhinavagupta’s commentary by Daniel H. H. Ingalls Sr.  But even when there are good translations, as in this case, they are written for the academic reader who is already familiar with the terminology, the issues and the controversies.  So for the lay reader, an encounter with one of these translations can often be baffling.  And, further—shastric or scientific Indian texts are usually written in the sutra form; the word sutra, as is generally known, means “thread.” What most people don’t know is that there is actually a technical definition of what a good sutra is; a text from the 4th century CE declares: “Of minimal syllabary, unambiguous, pithy, comprehensive/ continuous, and without flaw: who knows the sutra knows it to be thus.” So there is a great deal of emphasis on economy and precision; the ideal in this regard is Panini’s famous generative grammar, the ashtadhyayi (“Eight Chapters”), the main part of which is a set of 3976 rules that you can print out in about 40 pages. And yet Panini describes the entire Sanskrit language with this rule-set. So the sutra form tries to pack a maximal semantic payload into the smallest possible syntactic space, a “minimal syllabary.” The shastric texts therefore can therefore be very hard to understand if you read them in isolation, by themselves. But nobody ever read them in that manner—the assumption was that you would encounter them within the context of an intellectual community, that perhaps you would study the texts with a teacher, who would not only draw out the meanings from the sutras, but also introduce you to the commentaries, and the commentaries on the commentaries. Jonardon Ganeri writes that in classical India “commentary writing is heavily nested; that is to say, there are in general multiple commentaries on any given text, commentaries on those commentaries, commentaries on the sub-commentaries, and so on.” There were specific terms for different kinds of commentaries: bhasya, for a commentary whose function is to “unpack and weave together” the sutras; varttika, a sub-commentary on a bhasya; vivarana, a grammatical-semantic analysis; and many more.

So the engine of knowledge-production was this conversation, this continuing debate that continued over generations, sometimes over thousands of years. A good translation for the lay reader would have to, out of necessity, introduce you to this conversation instead of just laying out the sutras. And that’s very very hard to do, and is uncommon. A model in this regard is Edwin F. Bryant’s The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, which really draws you into the enormously complex conversation around this essential text, and shows you the commentators talking to each other. I’m hoping we see more efforts like Bryant’s. I’m very optimistic about the Murty Classical Library of India, which has recently begun releasing new, high-quality translations aimed at the general reader.



Naheed Patel is Editor at Large, India for Asymptote. Originally from Nagpur, India, Naheed is currently based in New York City, where she is an MFA candidate at Columbia University’s School of the Arts. Her fiction is forthcoming in Sou’wester.

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