Codes and Words ; Vikram Chandra turns to non-fiction to explore the aesthetics of programming. [India Today]
(India Today Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) It's an unlikely little book; a long essay connecting programming and literature which spawns several more essays and fills up 200- odd pages. Sanskrit as the perfect programming language; coding as the apparently inscrutable communication eliciting meaning as a language-the conceit is obvious and meaty. But it falls apart, halfway through the ten educative chapters which make up supreme stylist Vikram Chandra's fourth book, and his first work of non- fiction.
Chandra opens by introducing us to the arcane, combustible Bay Area microcosm of programming pioneers in four charming chapters which also give us the history of his early life as a writer and an Indian. For, while consolidating his vocation, he did the unlikely thing of programming to supplement his income-moving to the US at a time when this represented an educational and professional zenith and leaving behind the land of his constant inspiration-and came to revel in both code and English. Chandra's take of code as a "gunky, biological-seeming mess" is vivid, exhaustive and even endearing (though the bit on Boolean logic gates is plodding, despite the Lego- like visual aids). And the pursuit of the killer programming language ultimately takes us to ancient theorist Anandavardhana's propositions of vyanjana, an alternate semantic mode of poetic suggestion (in addition to literal and figurative modes) which evokes dhvani, an endless resonance of meaning evoked by poetry and forming its soul, and at its most potent invokes rasa, an elevated and aestheticised sentiment caused by artificially induced emotion, in the sahrdaya, its sophisticated ideal connoisseur. Hereon, it is the writer's exultation in historical connect that comes into play, exploring beauty in code and literature.
From 'towering polymath' Abhinavagupta's assertions ('I am free because I remember') to synthetic biology, the jumps are sort of natural, if the material is at times opaque. First Chandra gave us the irony of uber-nerdy programmer as macho "blood-soaked pioneer" and spoke of "Big Balls of Mud", great big messes of code; now, he alludes to them when he talks about what he writes: "I want entanglement, unexpected connections, reverberations, the weight of pouring rain on red earth. Mud is where life begins." Perhaps these primordial messes (virtual, literal or suggestive) could have been realised in less space-the same points are borne out over and over again, so that even if repetition, as he suggests, is consciousness, he loses his usual traction-or simply in a better form. For, it doesn't find the unity it so yearns for, with tangential discourses on sexism in programming, the absence of female agency in Sanskrit literature and some standard reflections on writerly life.
Then, there is the counter-intuitive declaration at the end that there is no real way programming and writing could compare: "To compare code to works of literature may point the programme towards legibility and elegance, but it says nothing about the ability of code to materialise logic."; "Code moves. It changes the world."
In this work's simultaneous economy and seeming infinity of form, Chandra appears to pay a tribute to the virtual models (e-books) he clearly heralds, as inevitable fodder for the Abhinavaguptas of the future. Yes, the future is almost upon us, but masters of the big book need not be in such a hurry to embrace it-one must allow that neither code nor words will transcend without sufficient attention to dhvani, even accounting for the tastes of the modern sahrdaya. The bug in this one doesn't seem to have been worked out but anything by this author is so pleasurable that pleasure is that mode of knowledge you employ-till you remember how much you enjoyed Sacred Games. Does the writer trying both fiction and non-fiction need to choose one over the other? Either way, Chandra's next novel is awaited.
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