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A writer's code

Ajit Balakrishnan 

My Life in Letters and Code
Vikram Chandra

Penguin; 230 pages; Rs 499

Vikram Chandra's Mirrored Mind is a coming-of-age book. Not like The Catcher in the Rye, which recounts the adolescent tribulations of 16-year-old Holden Caulfield, but more like Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, which, on the face of it, recounts a young girl coming of age in segregated 1953 Alabama but whose enduring value is in its examination of societal rules, written and unwritten. Mr Chandra's book's value is in the examination of the written and unwritten rules that govern the intellectual life of Indians of our generation.

The narrator - like many middle-class Indian school boys, including me - is fed a diet of Victorian classics, and bowdlerised editions of like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. His literary epiphany is when, digging through the stacks of a Bombay commercial lending library, he encounters Ernest Hemingway's "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" and "The Snows of Kilimanjaro". That drives him to an undergraduate degree in English and from there on to a film school in New York. To earn spending money, he takes up a part-time job in a company that converts doctors' illegible examination notes into readable documents. It's 1985, and he encounters the first personal (PC) and falls head over heels in love with it - and everything connected with it - and teaches himself programming.

Watch a young man or woman pecking at the keyboard of their laptops, and the observer would be hard put to make out whether they are writing a literary piece or Both, a piece of literature and a computer program, are written in English and require the writer's close attention and both, says the author, are "explorations of process, an unfolding of connections". Both writers and programmers struggle with language to express themselves with precision.

Mr Chandra's book also serves as an excellent ethnographic study of computer programmers, a profession that employs a million or so Indians in and abroad and about whom most of us know little, apart from a hazy notion that they are doing something useful and getting paid reasonably well for that work. That in the international mind "Indian" is conflated with "geekiness" is clear when a major American TV show, The Big Bang Theory, features a character named Raj Koothrappali. He is portrayed as mild, socially awkward, effeminate by American standards and lets his parents run his life, thereby neatly bundling all the relevant stereotypes. The American community likes to think of themselves as macho, and the ideal as a "Lord of the Flies" who "grew up cooking squirrels over a campfire with sharpened sticks". Mr Chandra contrasts this with the way we imagine our scientific heroes such as Homi Bhabha, Vikram Sarabhai or J C Bose - men of rectitude and austerity.

He also points out that a third to half of Indian computer science degrees are awarded to women, which again clashes with the stereotype of computer geeks as being males who sit in front of their computer all day and sleep near it.

Mr Chandra says his second epiphany occurred when he first heard the poet A K Ramanujan read his translation of a classical Tamil poem from the third century at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Poets of that period in divide the world into two: an interior landscape filled with the pleasures and pains of love and attachment, and an external world of heroic striving and obligation with each filled with complex symbolic associations that create mood and meaning.

This leads him to explore a world of which our normal, middle-class English-medium education leaves us ignorant - the world, for instance, of the grammarian Panini, who, in one slender 40-page book, laid down the 3,976 rules that help to generate the words and sentences in all of Sanskrit. He believes that Panini's way of representing syntactic relationships foretold modern linguistic theory, which itself is the basis of modern computer languages. He is also struck by the data that in Odisha, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh alone, there exist today 650,000 ancient manuscripts, distributed over 35,000 repositories. He compares this with the miserly 40,000 medieval manuscripts at the Bibliotheque nationale de France, the national library of France and one of the biggest repositories in Europe.

This is the sense in which is a coming-of-age book: the coming of age of Indian writing in English in a book that gently and subtly nudges us as Indians to examine the written and unwritten rules that our missionary school education has embedded in us.

The reviewer is the author of The Wave Rider: A Chronicle of the Information Age

First Published: Tue, January 14 2014. 21:25 IST