Mirrored Mind: My Life in Letters and Code By Vikram Chandra, Hamish Hamilton, Rs 499
It remains a mystery why Vikram Chandra is not considered to be part of the Ghosh-Seth-Roy-Lahiri pantheon of Indian novelists writing in English. As a literary-architectonic achievement, his Sacred Games, 2006, towers above much of what this pantheon has produced. It left me in the same place as Peter Brook’s Mahabharata did; and I remember thinking — after working through its 900 pages with a rising sense of what Chandra’s new heroes, the Sanskrit aestheticians, Anandavardhana and Abhinavagupta, would call the chamatkara — that Vishal Bhardwaj, Martin Scorsese and David Lynch should get together and make a film of this transcendent blockbuster of a novel.
“An ocean in a cow’s hoof print”: this is how Chandra, translating a vernacular saying, describes the proto-structuralist achievements of the Sanskrit grammarian, Panini, in Mirrored Mind. But it is a phrase that might also describe — and Chandra, of course, knows this — his own fictional worlds. This unanxious self-reflexiveness, which shoots out in unexpected directions towards other kinds of intelligence, inventiveness and learning, is the point of Chandra’s genial and uncategorizable new book. It is easy and light to hold in one’s hand and read, yet continually opens up new ways of thinking about the difficult, obsessive processes forming both the skin and the core of creativity and pleasure.
“Savouring is a form of knowledge,” Chandra writes, quoting Abhinavagupta, in a close reading of how rasa (the distilled essence of one’s response to a particular mode of feeling) and dhvani (inward resonance) intertwine with memory to create structures of feeling and recognition in Abhinavagupta’s understanding of what makes a beautiful poem. But Chandra also makes the apparently antithetical activity of software programming — the art of coding — look into this mirror of beauty. This makes us see code as an object and activity that might be savoured, too, in all its differences from other, more conventionally artistic, processes.
That even the bleakness of the programmer’s life might be savoured, in a way, had been shown by Coetzee in Youth, and then taken to an inscrutably Platonic level of number-driven mysticism in The Childhood of Jesus. Another shadow that flits through Chandra’s book is that of the all- remembering Funes, a creation of Borges, whose precise little stories aspired to the conditions of both infinity and zero, of Everything and Nothing. But Mirrored Mind is a different kind of critical-analytical life-writing, bringing to mind the fragmented histories and systems of thought in Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria — pools of writing, over the still or rippling waters of which the writer bends in order to see, understand and reveal himself better.
The tone and character of this book’s intelligence — equally at home in fiction, theory, history, logic and mathematics, but resistant to being pinned down to any one of these — also brings to mind the writings of the poet and scholar, A.K. Ramanujan — his trans-autobiographical essay, “Is There An Indian Way of Thinking?”, for instance, or his rigorous but idiosyncratic analyses of stories-within-stories in the Indian epics and of the ring-like structure of Kalidas’s ring-haunted Shakuntala, or Ramanujan’s translations of Tamil and Kannada poetry and the introductory essays in Speaking of Siva and The Interior Landscape, from which Chandra took the title of his first novel, after an inspiring encounter with Ramanujan in New York, which he briefly recounts in this book.
“Fiction has been my vocation, and code my obsession,” Chandra writes in the opening chapter of Mirrored Mind. So, the joining of these two hemispheres in his life and brain — to steal one of Ramanujan’s favourite metaphors — initially divides the book into two kinds of writing. First, a social history of programming and programmers in India and the United States, rich in human detail and humour, especially on “geek machismo” and the changing roles of women in computing; and second, finely engaged readings of Panini’s Sanskrit grammar and of Anandavardhana and Abhinavagupta’s aesthetics, that go deep into the fundamental questions of how we respond to the beauty of art, especially theatre and poetry. Weaving these two modes together, so that they are eventually inextricable from each other, is Chandra’s personal history of reading and writing, and of moving between India and America. This often breaks up the book’s discursive mode into shorter, more whimsical, fragments à la Nietzsche and Barthes.
But structurally and intellectually, this fusion begins to happen through Chandra’s adaptation of the classical idea of rasa to his own preoccupation with meta- languages — the tendency of any system to produce within itself the means of looking at or talking about itself. A work of art, the writing and application of a code, and the human mind contemplating its own highest pleasures — each of these systems is capable of producing its own critical or creative meta-language, even if that language remains unarticulated, only silently and internally apprehended. So, the experience of savouring has “psychical distance” — impersonality and disinterestedness — built into it. (Keats would have agreed.)
In the Natyashastra, the rasa is not the stable emotion of, say, grief or shoka portrayed by the actor, but the relishing of that grief as pathos or karuna by the viewer. So, rasa is the viewer’s “reflective cognizing” of the actor’s representation of grief: “The pleasure of rasa comes from the meta-experience of experiencing oneself experience the stable emotions.” It is in this, somewhat dizzying, realm of self-reflexiveness that a great novel aspires to contemplate, as Sacred Games does, its own “huge, humming, incandescent mesh”, or a great language begins to look at itself, as it does in Panini’s grammar, which holds, in turn, a mirror up to Chandra’s sense of his own vocation and obsession. “All cognition is re-cognition, recognition; discovery and rediscovery are both nourishing,” Chandra writes in the closing paragraph of this book, “Duchamp noticed that ‘most artists only repeat themselves.’ If so, an obsession with contradiction, paradox, ambiguity, and mirroring has been my repetition, one that I’m happy with. Repetition need not only be a grim karmic necessity, or an endless rehearsal of trauma. In the practice of fiction, what is tasted — first and then again — is consciousness itself.”