Story Hour With Vikram Chandra

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On Thursday night BookVibe had the fabulous opportunity to attend a reading from Vikram Chandra—author of the highly acclaimed novels Red Earth and Pouring Rain, Love and Longing in Bombay, and Sacred Gamesat UC Berkeley’s “Story Hour.”

With honors including the Commonwealth Writers Prize (Eurasia), the Crossword Prize, and the Salon Book Award, Chandra is a noted novelist who also teaches creative writing at UC Berkeley with his wife, Melanie Abrams. When we heard that he was coming out with his first non-fiction novel, Geek Sublime: The Beauty of Code, the Code of Beauty, we were beside ourselves with excitement.

But when we read the synopsis—“Chandra delineates the intricacy and beauty of code, illuminating links between programming and literature in bedazzling elucidations of Sanskrit, aesthetics, linguistics, and Hindu, Tantric, and Buddhist beliefs”—our first thought was:

What?

How is programming fundamentally linked with literature? How can we ascribe beauty to the craft of writing code? The topic is such a departure from Chandra’s other works that we were thrown off.

But we had high hopes and heard great things about the book, and judging by the turnout at UC Berkeley’s Morrison Library (the room was packed), others did too.

While people were buzzing about excitedly and students greeted each other with notebooks in hand, Chandra’s wife, Melanie, quietly approached the podium. She cleared her throat into the microphone and admitted, with a bashful smile on her lips, “I forgot I had to host, and I’m not ready. But I’m here to introduce Vikram Chandra—a great husband, yaddy yadda, and lover of Coca-Cola…”

The audience laughed as Chandra stepped forward to say his thanks. The moment he spoke, the room subsided into a dead silence.

“I’ve always had an obsessive interest in computers…”

And then it began.

He talked about his early life and his passion for programming, but how writing ultimately won out—and how after years of studying both crafts, he realized that “hackers and artists are among the two most alike.” Chandra stated that people who construct language for machines may not seem very creative, but the opposite is true—that aesthetics play an important role in programming, and can be beautiful, even if functioning in the realm of logic.

Chandra went on to discuss how computational thinking is grounded in philosophy, mathematics, and linguistics. He capitalized on Sanskrit, and a grammarian named Panini, who created a 2,500-year-old text called Ashtadhyayi—which consists of 3,959 Sanskrit grammar rules—and demonstrated a few to the audience in the form of poems and graphs.

This Sanskrit “generator,” influenced Ferdinand de Saussure and others, and “modern linguistic theory, in its turn, became the seedbed for high-level computer languages.”

Throughout the reading, Chandra spoke with a quiet confidence and often gesticulated with his hands, demonstrating his enthusiasm for both literature and technology. We could tell that he wanted his audience to understand, but because the reading was limited to an hour, there was not much time to go into detail—especially with such a layered topic.

However, Chandra made the best of the sixty minutes, and said just enough for us to be thoroughly intrigued.

“You all seem dazed,” laughed Chandra, as he finished his talk.

There was an enthusiastic round of applause, and only two members of the crowd were brave enough to ask questions.

We got in line to purchase a few copies of Geek Sublime, and (shamelessly) asked Chandra to pose for a couple of photos. After all, the man is a hero in our eyes—he possesses a unique gift for mastering literature as well as technology, the two things BookVibe stands for.

  photo 5(He wasn’t ready, but we were!) photo 4(The great Vikram Chandra holds the audience in raptured silence)

photo 1(As you can see, our BookVibe correspondent was very excited)

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