Writing non-fiction is terrifying: Vikram Chandra

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Vikram Chandra
Vikram Chandra, 52, Author Photo: Andrea Fernandes

EDITED EXCERPTS FROM AN INTERVIEW

The first thing that would intrigue a reader is the unusual form of the book, the way you bring in disparate ideas together and join the dots, between technology and art, coding and Sanskrit language. How did you arrive upon the form?

It started as an essay on the anthropology of programming culture, because these technologies are having an immensely profound effect and, I think, most people outside the industry don’t know very much about it. Like any other profession, it’s got its own stars, its own hierarchies and its own mythology, so I wanted to think about that. And also, because I’m dealing with one kind of language when I write fiction, I’ve always noticed very strongly that programmers talk a lot about beauty and elegance.

An important theme in the book is male domination in the world of programming and the unusual contrast with India.

One of the things you discover when you look at this history of programming, especially now in the United States, it’s completely marked as a male domain. Silicon Valley is a very macho place. You may think it’s a bunch of nerds hanging out together, but it’s geek machismo and very sexist. There is this idea of coding being essentially a male thing, a heroic thing; it’s very pervasive. If you look at the history of programming, the first programmers were all women. Over time, that presence gets elided. Programming as a profession gets professionalised and one of the resources used in this process is the idea of masculinity. Historically, whenever a profession professionalised, that meant it had been masculinised. It’s an interesting contrast with India, where you expect it to be worse but for certain sociological reasons it is actually not marked as a male domain and more and more women are getting into it. Similarly, in emerging places like the Philippines and Egypt it is not marked as predominantly male.

Through your book, you keep talking about how technology has changed and turned around our lives. As a writer, does it interest you to probe how technology has changed us?

I was just reading the other day about the growth of cellphones in India, and it’s changed our cultures in ways that are very profound and very unpredictable because you’re letting these elements loose in the hands of millions of people and you don’t know quite what will happen. The most obvious example is the khap panchayat taking away phones from young women. Similarly, in northwest Pakistan, women are stoned because they have cellphones. In economic ways and social ways, it’s had this profound impact. Techie utopianism for technology is that power will be diffused through it, but the problem is that power also gets much more concentrated and once it accumulates, it’s very hard to break the monopoly. In the book market, for example, look at Amazon, they’re ruthless. I have friends who run independent bookstores, but it’s like Jack and the Giant, in terms of not just ruling the American market, they have global plans and they are coming. So, I think in those kinds of ways, which affect our day-to-day lives, it changes all of us. And then, there are those ways which sociologists and psychologist talk about — the performative aspect of the self on Facebook and Instagram and how we are constructing selves both in the real world and online.

You came to writing this book while working on your next work of fiction. Were you scared of venturing into the unknown, by attempting non-fiction?

While writing fiction, the pauses are natural, you have to wait them out. This time, I wanted to write a small essay for a glossy magazine. But the idea grew and got away with me and very much later, it became a book. Writing non-fiction was very foreign and terrifying, scary because you can’t make up stuff and that is what I’ve been doing all my life. I’ve been making up stuff in the pattern that I want. In fiction-writing, the form has been easier to find for me, the characters and events lead you in a certain direction but the amazing thing about non-fiction is that you can have all these balls in the air and talk about anything you want and juxtapose it right next to the other. I had to stretch very different muscles and it took me quite a while to find the shape of it.

You’re a self-confessed geek, but you’ve kept away from Twitter. Writers are increasingly mining this medium. What according to you is its pull?

All writers are being told this now, you’ve got to tweet and you’ve got to maintain a fan base and interact with them. But it’s such a time suck. I think, I have too much to read. My wife has been Facebooking for ages. I’ve just got on to it more recently and she still tells me I’m doing it all wrong. I think the ruling attraction of Twitter and Facebook and all those technologies is that it gives you a faux idea of intimacy with people who are very far away. So, if you see a favourite movie star suddenly telling you something like, I ate lunch at so and so restaurant, fries were horrible, you feel this immediacy of connection, which can be manipulated very carefully from the other side. In that way, even in professional spheres, technology pervades and changes the way we address each other.

You have studied in film school and you belong to a family steeped in the world of cinema. How much do films inform your writing?

I have always loved films and indulge in copious quantities of them, but I found out very early when I went to film school that this kind of collaborative field is not what I’m built for. I like to control things; sitting at my laptop, entering this world and being able to control it completely. Solitary writers have a difficult time in cinema. But cinema informs my storytelling a lot. We live in a cinematic world, and now we have all this changing media. It does not have to intrude into your story, but your characters would face the world through this media so you have to face it too.

Sartaj Singh, the hero of Sacred Games, is a cult character with a huge fan following. Do you think he will ever reappear in your fiction? And what are the chances of our seeing him and his story on television?

Sacred Games is being developed as a longform television series by AMC. We are in what is popularly known as “development hell”. It could go on for some time, there are endless discussions and rewrites, but as an associate producer, I’m not involved in writing it. Maybe, by next spring we’ll have a decision from them one way or another. For the network, it will be quite a large undertaking, all shot here with Indian characters, very ambitious. They want to properly get all their ducks in a row before they attempt it.

Aravind Adiga wrote an essay last year where he spoke of Mumbai in decline and the political hijacking of its identity. More recently, Naresh Fernades tackles some of these questions in City Adrift. As someone who’s perceived as a ‘Mumbai writer’, does this concern you too?

It’s tempting to believe that the city is in perennial decline and I think Bombayites take a particular pleasure in anticipating its doom and complaining about it for all good reasons. I think in a democratic system, you will have a rough back and forth of politics. There’s no way around it, the rhetoric of nationalism not just at the national scale but sons-of-the-soil scale is going to be part of the conversation. I’m wary of this nostalgia that once upon a time there was a cosmopolitan Bombay, it’s not as simple as once there was a good Bombay and now there’s a bad Bombay. I’m more concerned about the physical shape of the city, the water, pollution; those issues are ignored and only treated in a superficial way by this roughhousing of politics, by corruption.

sunaina@tehelka.com

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