A Code-Obsessed Novelist Builds a Writing Bot. Plot Thickens

Within the first episode of the Netflix adaptation of Vikram Chandra’s best-selling novel, Sacred Video games, the prison kingpin Ganesh Gaitonde makes a telephone name to a detective, Sartaj Singh.

“I need to inform you a narrative,” Gaitonde says.

And off we go, launched into an intoxicating story of gangster drama, loaded with intercourse and politics and faith and historical past, punctuated with Bollywood songs and the tantalizing mélange of half a dozen languages. Gaitonde’s story drives the plot, however a welter of different narratives intersect and circle round one another, conflict and complement.

For these accustomed to Chandra’s work, the upfront declaration—I need to inform you a narrative—is a multimedia calling card. As a trainer of artistic writing at UC Berkeley, as an government producer of the Netflix collection, and because the cofounder of a startup that makes storytelling software program, Chandra is actually within the enterprise of narrative. There’s hardly a dividing line between his life and artwork: He weaves yarns and so do his characters.

His first novel, Crimson Earth and Pouring Rain, is a tangle of nested tales that begins with a monkey in Bombay pounding away on a typewriter, spinning out an epic that accommodates a hall-of-mirrors refraction of different storytellers telling tales. Every of the 5 items in his assortment Love and Longing in Bombay begins with an viewers listening to a narrative. His well-received 2013 enterprise into nonfiction, Geek Chic: The Fantastic thing about Code, the Code of Magnificence, is an element memoir, half how-to—a deep-dive investigation of the artistic act as expressed within the arts of programming, literature, and historical Indian philosophy.

A local of India, the 58-year-old Chandra supported himself as a graduate scholar learning artistic writing in america by working as a programmer. He’s as snug with code as he’s with prose, and his startup, Granthika, is a geekily elegant merger of each side of his mind. The premise is directly easy and virtually impossibly formidable: Chandra believes that we now have but to completely exploit the facility of the pc to boost and facilitate the artistic course of. Utilizing Granthika, Chandra says, writers can dispense with the grunt work that distracts them from specializing in the good things—the story!

“I need to do away with the grinding,” Chandra says, borrowing a time period from gaming jargon that describes the repetitive gameplay vital for leveling up. Granthika is designed to assist writers preserve monitor of character attributes, timelines, the who-what-when-where of their tangled plots. Granthika intends to simplify the act of participating with complexity.

The historical past of writers screwing up essential particulars of their very own tales dates all the best way again to Homer. (Even Homer nods!) As a cautionary story, Chandra, an enormous Sherlock Holmes fan, likes to quote the instance of Arthur Conan Doyle, who routinely dedicated such goof-ups as giving Dr. Watson two completely different first names. Chandra, by his personal admission, can’t abide the considered even the smallest continuity errors or inside contradictions in his personal work. From virtually the start of his love affair with computer systems, Chandra has lusted after a phrase processor that may preserve him from making inadvertent errors. So he constructed one.

However that’s just the start. Chandra’s novels and tales search to grapple with everything of India’s place on the earth, from its historical myths and aesthetic discourse to its disastrous expertise with colonialism to its trendy kaleidoscope of bedazzling—and politically destabilizing—ethnic and linguistic and non secular division. He’s nothing if not a giant sport hunter.

His larger imaginative and prescient for Granthika is as a software for constructing what he describes as “a rule set” for complicated fictional or nonfictional universes. As soon as constructed, that rule set can then be shared with others, opened up for exploration, adoption, and adaptation by a number of collaborators or fan fiction writers or avid gamers.

Granthika is probably not for everybody. There are doubtless loads of novelists whose literary aspirations do not contain elaborate world-building. There isn’t any getting round it: Chandra’s software program is designed to assist write the type of large, complicated novels that Chandra focuses on. Like many a startup entrepreneur earlier than him, he’s “scratching his personal itch.” However the dream remains to be seductive: With Granthika watching from on excessive, guarding the interior coherence and integrity of any given universe, writers shall be free to deal with the grandest challenges they’ll envision.

A group of photographs, paperwork, and letters Vikram Chandra compiled for his novels (apart from the picture at decrease left, which is a household snapshot).

Photograph: Nina Riggio

The artwork of crafting tales was dinner-table dialog in Chandra’s childhood houses in Delhi and Bombay. His mom, Kamna Chandra, is an completed screenplay author who has labored with a few of Bollywood’s best legends. Certainly one of his youthful sisters is a movie author and director, and the opposite is a movie critic who’s married to a director. Chandra’s father, now retired, was a company nine-to-five government at a chemical firm who fortunately sponsored all of the artistic ferment, together with Chandra’s journey to America to review artistic writing. (“Thank god for the company man!” Chandra is fond of claiming.)

Chandra describes himself as a “bizarre child,” a “nerd” who was a voracious reader and fixed conjurer of unusual tales. He wrote his first story—an train in science fiction—in sixth grade. He learn every thing he may get his fingers on, equally at house with comics, Shakespeare, and the nice epics of Indian mythology, the Mahabharata and Ramayana. In highschool, he fell in love with American modernists like William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway, and finally turned satisfied he needed to transfer to america to satisfy his writerly calling.

As a scholar of each movie and writing, he hop-scotched throughout America, from Ohio to Los Angeles to New York to Houston, earlier than touchdown in Berkeley. (He at the moment splits his time between Bombay and California.) Alongside the best way he managed to get graduate writing levels at each John Hopkins College and the College of Houston whereas learning with two of the giants of postmodern literature, John Barth and Donald Barthelme, each of whom excelled in taking aside conventional narrative constructions, mixing up the items, and rebuilding them in weird new kinds.

Chandra’s first novel, Crimson Earth and Pouring Rain, from 1995, is concurrently a riff on the Ramayana, a retelling of the British conquest of India, and a narrative a couple of younger Indian man in school within the US within the 20th century. It garnered rave opinions and the Commonwealth Writers Award for Greatest First Guide. Chandra parlayed his out-of-the-gate success and the equally heat reception to his 1997 assortment of quick tales, Love and Longing in Bombay, right into a day-job profession as a artistic writing professor, first at George Washington College after which at UC Berkeley. With that institutional safety in hand, he was capable of deal with the 10-year problem of ending Sacred Video games.

However all of the whereas he by no means strayed removed from the world of code. Chandra fell below the pc’s spell whereas learning movie at Columbia College within the late 1980s, when he took a job at a agency that supplied secretarial providers for medical insurance coverage corporations. His job was to transform handwritten notes from medical doctors’ examinations right into a kind appropriate for authorized wrangling. Three months into the job, the corporate supplied its employees with private computer systems.

There’s a explicit type of thoughts that responds to the miracle of code—the godlike energy of compelling the execution of a selected activity by accurately compiling a sequence of symbols collectively. Chandra dove in: “Right here,” he wrote in Geek Chic, “was a whole world, methods and guidelines I may uncover and management … there have been mysteries, issues I didn’t perceive, however there have been at all times solutions. If I attempted arduous, there was at all times a logic to find, an inside order and consistency that was lovely.”

By the point Chandra reached Houston and set to work on his first novel, he was computer-proficient sufficient to make what he calls a “first rate graduate faculty residing—sufficient to afford common journeys again to India,” by offering basic programming and laptop consulting providers. (To at the present time, Chandra considers himself “a working-class programmer.”)

When he began writing Sacred Video games within the late ’90s, his unique conception for the guide was as a novella-sized gangster story sparked by his expertise of listening to automated weapons fireplace between rival mobs whereas residing in Bombay. However in the course of the course of his background analysis—Chandra is an avid notetaker, researcher, reporter, and reality checker who chases down each accessible rabbit gap with relentless ferocity (“I’ve a extremely obsessive nature,” he tells me, greater than as soon as)—he quickly realized that he couldn’t inform a narrative about Indian gangsters with out delving into police corruption and the complicity of politicians, in addition to the ethnic and non secular squabbling that’s endemic to present-day India.

The story metastasized, rising to include the devastating partition of India into Muslim-majority Pakistan and Hindu-majority India in 1947 and together with sidetracks into Bollywood filmmaking, non secular transcendence, and intelligence company machinations—all served with heaping helpings of affection, betrayal, and homicide. Chandra is mild-mannered, soft-spoken, and cautiously considerate in particular person, however as an writer he writes intercourse scenes that steam and motion that kilos. When he lastly completed, Sacred Video games was an epic that clocked in at 947 pages, coated 60 years of contemporary Indian historical past, and featured greater than 100 characters. It commanded a reported seven-figure advance.


Courtesy of Netflix

Season one in all Sacred Video games on Netflix tailored from the Vikram Chandra novel.


For a perfectionist like Chandra, the method of writing was a particular type of torture. The universe of Sacred Video games was too large to carry simply within the short-term random entry reminiscence of his mind. Early on within the writing, he realized that “dealing with all these things was going to drive me loopy.” Simply determining what a personality’s age was speculated to be at any given time was a distracting, Sisyphean chore.

“Say you’ve gotten a personality born in 1978,” Chandra says, “and you then need that particular person to do one thing in opposition to a historic incident in 1996, however you then assume, ‘Oh, however wait, this different factor that he wants to participate in occurs in 2001. How do I make all of this match?’ For those who change one date someplace, then that has each a downstream impact and an upstream impact.”

As a author, Chandra delights in a number of layers and dizzying whiplashes throughout area and time. However as a programmer, he’s all too conscious that a single parentheses misplaced can break the spell. So the query turned learn how to use the strengths of 1 self-discipline to shore up the weaknesses of the opposite.

“I would like a phrase processor that does greater than phrase processing,” Chandra says. “And I used to be positive someone had written software program to do that. After which I found that they hadn’t.”

Ganesh is the Chandra household’s favourite Hindu god.

Photograph: Nina Riggio

A carven picture of Ganesha, the elephant-headed Hindu god who is called each “the remover of obstacles” and the patron of poetry, greets guests from the entrance door of the Craftsman-style house in north Oakland, just some homes south of the Berkeley border, that Chandra shares along with his spouse, Melanie Abrams (additionally a novelist, additionally a artistic writing trainer at Berkeley), and his two daughters.

The phrase granthika is a Sanskrit noun meaning “narrator, relator” or “one who understands the joints or division of time.” It’s intently associated to a different noun, grantha, which suggests “a synthetic association of phrases, verse, composition, treatise, literary manufacturing, guide in prose or verse, textual content,” and the foundation stem granth, which suggests “to lock, tie or string collectively, prepare, join in an everyday collection, to string phrases collectively, compose (a literary work.)”

However what Granthika is admittedly supposed to be is the remover of obstacles that hinder the stringing collectively of a synthetic association of phrases in a harmonious, significant trend. The core problem of this purpose is that it knocked heads with probably the most cussed issues in laptop science—educating a machine to know what phrases imply. The design doc describing Granthika that Chandra wrote in airports and accommodations whereas on tour for Geek Chic known as for a “reimagining of textual content.” However that’s simpler written than performed.

“I found that attaching information to textual content is definitely a fairly arduous downside,” Chandra says.

Pc scientists have been attempting to slice this Gordian knot for many years. Efforts just like the Textual content Encoding Initiative and Semantic Internet ended up loading paperwork with so many tags aiming to clarify the aim and performance of every phrase that the superstructure of study turned overwhelmingly high heavy. It was as in case you had been inventing a wholly new language simply to translate an current language. Software program purposes constructed on high of those methods, says Chandra, had been “troublesome and fragile to make use of.”

One sleepless night time, Chandra had an epiphany. He realized, he says, that the important thing to representing textual content and semantics in a method that averted the issues of the standard approaches lay in treating textual content as a “hypergraph.”

With conventional graphs, Chandra says, diverting into mathematical terrain that a lot of the writers who use Granthika will doubtless by no means dare enter, “you solely have attachments between one node and the following and the following. However a hypergraph can level to many objects, many nodes.” A hypergraph strategy would, he realized, allow a organizational system that illuminated a number of connections between folks, locations, and issues, with out getting slowed down in efforts to outline the important that means of every aspect. The purpose of processing a textual content doc right into a multi-nodal hypergraph of connections turned Granthika’s central working precept.

The underlying software program is constructed on an adaptation of an open supply database program known as HypergraphDB, created by a Montreal-based programmer, Borislav Iordanov. Chandra first encountered Iordanov’s work when he began Googling round to see if any current software program match the outline of what he had conceived in his head. Chandra emailed Iordanov some technical questions; Iordanov responded by asking him what it was, precisely, that he needed to do, and ended up so intrigued by Chandra’s solutions that he joined the nascent undertaking.

So how does it work, virtually? In model one in all Granthika, which launched in November, writers have interaction in a working dialogue with the software program. The author tells Granthika that so-and-so is a “character,” that such-and-such is an “occasion,” that this occasion occurred presently or at this location with this character, and so forth. This turns into the rule set, the timeline, the who-what-where-when-how.

Behind the scenes, below the floor of the doc, Granthika is a database of connecting hyperlinks between these textual content objects. If, in the course of the artistic course of, the author desires to assessment a specific character’s trajectory, she will be able to click on on that character’s title and go on to a timeline of all of the occasions or scenes that that character is concerned with.

“So I’m writing a novel,” Chandra says, “and I’m mentioning a personality on web page 416 and she or he is a minor character that I final talked about on web page 80. Beforehand, to find out about that character I’ve to open up my note-taking program after which search via the notes. With Granthika, I can press one key stroke and go to her web page, because it had been, and see all my notes about her and hopefully quickly photos that I’ve hooked up, and so forth.”

The breakthrough is that the pc doesn’t have to know at any sentient stage who the character is, it simply has to know what issues that character is linked to.

Making a hypergraph database that hyperlinks a number of parts in a novel like Sacred Video games is a process-intensive computing activity that Iordanov says wouldn’t have been attainable till comparatively just lately. It is usually a realization of what among the earliest observers of digital textual content theorized was a crucially defining side of computer-mediated, globally networked know-how—the brand new means to meaningfully hyperlink issues collectively.

Finally, Iordanov says, the hope is that advances in pure language processing and semantic evaluation shall be integrated into Granthika, making this system good sufficient to do its personal tagging. In order the author crafts, Granthika may ask Is that this a personality? Is that this an occasion? and, relying on the author’s solutions, construct the rule set—the framework that binds characters and occasions collectively semiautonomously.

However Chandra cautions in opposition to considering of Granthika as a full-fledged AI with its personal impartial artistic capability. The purpose of Granthika is to reap the benefits of what the pc can do and what the human being can do and convey them collectively. The Granthika-writer relationship is a partnership based on the precept of mutual error-correction. The human makes the artistic selections. The pc wrangles the database of these selections.

Vikram Chandra at his house in Oakland, California.

Photograph: Nina Riggio

In Monitor Adjustments, Matthew Kirschenbaum’s marvelous historical past of the phrase processor, we study that the primary cohort of writers to desert typewriters and begin composing with screens and keyboards consisted principally of science fiction writers. There have been some exceptions—notably, the historic fiction author Homosexual Courter, who wrote her best-selling novel The Midwife on an IBM System 6 within the late 1970s—however, usually talking, the writers whose eyes had been most firmly skilled on the long run had been the best to lure method from their Olivetti Letteras.

Jerry Pournelle, a science fiction writer, columnist for Byte Journal, and laptop hardware and software program tinkerer, was probably the most effusive early adopters. The convenience with which phrase processors facilitated the duty of revision—no extra correction fluid, no extra carbon copies, no extra laboriously retyping a complete doc over and over—induced in him an instantaneous writerly bliss.

Pournelle gushed about what he may do along with his home-built laptop, which he known as Ezekial, and an early word-processing program. As recounted by Kirschenbaum, Pournelle as soon as wrote, “Ezekial modified my life. He did a lot of the actual work of writing. I by no means needed to retype something, and I may fiddle with the textual content till I had precisely what I needed. Computer systems not solely allow you to write quicker, however by taking the mechanical work out of writing they allow you to write higher.

The vastly in style vampire fiction author Anne Rice went even additional, Kirschenbaum says: “She stated that with the phrase processor there isn’t any excuse for not writing the proper novel.”

Regardless of such early enthusiasm, few would argue immediately that the digital age ushered within the period of the “good novel.” Kirschenbaum says there isn’t even a consensus on whether or not phrase processing know-how has led to “higher” prose, on common. However there appears little doubt that phrase processors enabled quicker writing and that there’s now much less mechanical work concerned within the act of literary creation. “Higher for [Pournelle] meant one thing like ‘extra environment friendly with much less bodily labor’ in order that he may do extra,” Kirschenbaum says. “It was about throughput and effectivity.”

In impact: much less grinding. What Chandra desires from Granthika is strictly what the earliest writers who embraced phrase processing know-how grasped as a long-desired boon. In line with Kirschenbaum, when Courter was writing The Midwife, “she instantly understood that she may use the software to do a type of world constructing that featured inside consistency.”

Along with her major textual content doc, she additionally created a searchable file for household bushes and place names, and, Kirschenbaum writes, generated a “concordance that will enable a copyeditor to maintain monitor of Yiddish, Russian, and different tough phrases and phrasings.”

Homosexual Courter remains to be busy writing, and I emailed her to introduce her to Granthika.

“It intrigues me,” Courter stated by electronic mail. “I attempted not less than one novel writing program—Scrivener—a couple of years in the past that had some good options, however in the long run was too restrictive for me. This program appears to have among the similar instruments, however appears loads higher … I most likely will strive the free model for enjoyable. I’m a sucker for innovation.”

(In a followup electronic mail, Courter expressed some reservations in regards to the $10-a-month, $100-a 12 months subscription value of Granthika.)

I additionally reached out for touch upon Granthika to Princeton laptop scientist and writer David Gelernter, who has written each novels and nonfiction books. He agreed that there was room for enchancment in at the moment accessible phrase processing know-how.

“I do want higher writing instruments, desperately,” Gelernter emailed. “I’m utilizing a phrase processor immediately that might have been designed in 1991—or, so far as fundamental construction vs GUI [graphical user interface] goes, in 1979. Our phrase processors are out of date junk … Nobody has touched this subject critically for 20 years.”

“[But] solely a novelist who doesn’t know what he’s doing would need or use the type of software program you describe,” Gelernter stated. “I don’t assume any novelist with half a mind would contact Granthika with a 10-foot pole—I definitely wouldn’t—until he has a particular curiosity in experimenting with software program, which is at all times truthful sufficient. A novelist must really feel the route of the breezes, the updrafts and the mood-flows inside his characters and his plot. If he can’t journey the air currents inside his personal novel, he ought to search for one other job.”

Gelernter dismissed Granthika with out giving it a hands-on exploration, however a number of writers who had been a part of the Granthika beta-testing course of say they discovered the software program helpful.

Anjanette Delgado met Vikram Chandra at a author’s workshop in Miami and was instantly intrigued when she heard him discussing Granthika. A novelist, journalist, and former digital media producer for a number of tv networks, Delgado sees Granthika as a “world organizer” that helped her “write a extra layered story.”

“The largest downside that writers have is that they don’t understand that you need to maintain an entire world in your head,” says Delgado, who teaches an annual class on the Miami Guide Truthful known as “End Your Novel the TV Means.” “It will get complicated and overwhelming.”

“What Granthika does,” she says, “is create a file for every thing. So after I’m seeking to layer my story, I pull up one thing and immediately see all of the context.”

“I discover it useful to visualise what number of scenes are in every chapter, and preserve monitor of scenes, characters, and occasions,” says Monica Sherwood, one other beta tester. “I feel Granthika has essentially the most use for me after I really feel I must take a step away from the fabric itself and focus as an alternative on making certain that the foundational elements of the writing are there. What I do assume is exclusive about Granthika is the best way it hyperlinks textual content to parts of the author’s story. It seems like there’s a sure stage of intelligence there that rivals don’t make use of.”

“After I wrote my second novel, Chanakya’s Chant,” says Ashwin Sanghi, a best-selling thriller author who is usually known as the “Dan Brown of India,” “my lead character began out with blue eyes however had inexperienced eyes by the tip of the guide. It was a silly mistake that my editor ought to have picked up. Granthika makes an attempt to do exactly that.”

“The spellcheck operate of a phrase processor is ubiquitous immediately and I can not handle with out it,” Sanghi says. “Perhaps in the future the logic test, chronology test, and reality test capabilities of Granthika will change into simply as vital.”

I contacted Sanghi after studying a quote he’d given to a different reporter expressing the hope that Granthika may facilitate larger complexity in novel writing. What did that imply?

“Take into consideration a narrative revolving round three characters and three reincarnated lives,” Sanghi says. “In impact, the story includes 9 completely different individuals who have karmic equations to be settled in a number of lifetimes. Granthika may truly enable me to think about one thing like that.”

Chandra holds floppy discs containing his first novel Crimson Earth and Pouring Rain, which he wrote in grad faculty.

Photograph: Nina Riggio

In late November, Chandra alerted me by way of electronic mail that Granthika had pushed out a brand new replace with vital new performance—“the flexibility to export and import the ‘universe’ of your story—its characters, areas, occasions, and so forth.”

“You possibly can export your universe and you then or another person can import it into one other undertaking,” wrote Chandra. “So you may work with the identical fictional context inside a number of completely different writing tasks (a multi-novel saga, maybe), or collaborate with another person … On the roadmap: automated syncing of universes, so that a shared universe will dynamically replace when a change is made anyplace.”

Chandra is satisfied that the flexibility to export Granthika universes will discover explicit favor on the earth of fan fiction. In his view, a author who needed to create her personal story within the Harry Potter universe may simply import the Harry Potter rule set into their Granthika processor and be magically exempt from the concern of “breaking canon”—sacrilegiously getting some main or minor element unsuitable and infuriating the followers of that universe.

Anne Jamison, an English professor on the College of Utah who has written a guide on fan fiction, professes herself fascinated by Granthika. However whereas she sees potential purposes for skilled style writers who could be contractually required to write down three or 4 books a 12 months—“consider all these Hardy Boys writers who may have been helped by a factor like this” she says—she wasn’t totally positive that Granthika can be a killer app for fan fiction writers.

Fan fiction writers, Jamison says, are sometimes outlined by their all-consuming information of canon. That’s a part of the purpose: They’re exhaustively obsessive about the supply materials. Not solely wouldn’t they want any assist from a predefined rule set, they’re usually impressed, Jamison says, by a need to discover “what if issues had been performed otherwise? How would every thing change?”

They’re not afraid of getting one thing unsuitable and breaking canon, she says. As an alternative they’re all about “fixing canon.” Why did a favourite character should die? Let’s have Spock and Kirk fall in love! Let’s get Harry Potter on the Enterprise.

Traditionally talking, continuity errors within the taboo sense that Chandra views them aren’t deal-breakers for fan-fiction writers, Jamison says. As an instance her level Jamison cites the world of Sherlock Holmes “pastiche” writing (which she defines as “what we used to name fan fiction when it was principally males writing it.”)

There’s a entire style of so-called “Watsonians,” Jamison says, who imagine that Watson was the true author of the Sherlock Holmes tales and who’ve devoted their lives to arising with explanations of Conan Doyle’s “errors.” The thriller author Dorothy Sayers even wrote a complete essay definitively explaining why Dr. Watson has two completely different first names.

“A part of the sport,” Jamison says, “in what’s in reality known as ‘The Sport’ is decoding these errors in such a method that the world nonetheless is sensible.”

However for Chandra, even canon-breakers nonetheless may need assist from Granthika.

“Suppose there’s a group of followers who need to create a Veronica Mars–meets–Batman universe, thereby violating each canons,” Chandra says. “They’re nonetheless going to need to keep consistency of their explicit fan-created universe. And that’s precisely the place Granthika might help, by way of specifying the areas, characters, timelines, and so forth., of their very own explicit universe.”

Chandra is studying Sanskrit.

Photograph: Nina Riggio

All tales have in them the seed of all different tales; any story, if continued lengthy sufficient, turns into different tales, and she or he isn’t any true storyteller who would preserve this from you.” Then she was quiet, and I imagined tales multiplying spontaneously, springing joyously out of a mom story, already entire however by no means full, then giving start themselves, turning into as quite a few because the leaves on the bushes, because the galaxies within the sky, all linked, no starting, no finish, and I grew dizzy, after which she went on. Pay attention… —Crimson Earth and Pouring Rain

Three 24-inch flat-screen screens, organized in a segmented arc like the highest of an octagon, dominate Vikram Chandra’s desk. The display screen within the heart is the place the artistic act happens, whereas the screens on the left and proper are for accessing the web or programming.

Chandra’s workplace provides a fast introduction to his bipartite thoughts. (As he wrote in Geek Chic, “Fiction has been my vocation, and code my obsession.”) It’s full of each books and devices—together with devices that he makes use of to learn his books. Chandra prefers digital textual content over old style arduous copy. When a bodily guide comes into his possession, he removes the binding, runs the person pages via a high-throughput quick scanner, and converts them into an electronically readable file. (For causes he confesses he’s unable to completely articulate, he nonetheless retains the bodily books round, straining the capability of his workplace.)

To the best of the desk, a cardboard poster full of Sanskrit phrases leans in opposition to the wall. As soon as per week, Chandra research India’s nice classical language by way of Skype with a tutor in India. I’ve come to Chandra’s workplace to get a have a look at him truly utilizing Granthika whereas he writes, however the Sanskrit studying help distracts me; it presents the proper alternative to ask a query that has fascinated me ever since I learn Geek Chic.

Was it attainable that there was some type of cause-and-effect hyperlink between the construction of Sanskrit and the worldwide prowess of Indian programmers?

The argument goes like this: Of all the traditional languages on the earth, Sanskrit is essentially the most formal and common in its construction, to the purpose that some trendy observers have seen it as a type of programming language itself. Some 2,500 years in the past, the Indian thinker and philologist Panini produced a grammar for Sanskrit that not solely absolutely described the prevailing language however created a strategy to generate new Sanskrit phrases, as if by algorithm. As Chandra explains in nice element in each Geek Chic and on an extended weblog submit on the Granthika web site, Panini’s grammar ended up influencing trendy linguistic principle within the West, which in flip influenced the event of high-level computing languages like FORTRAN.

In the midst of stating the similarities between how historical Indian philosophers frequently tried to create a model of Sanskrit that will “formulate logical relations with scientific precision,” and what laptop programmers do once they try and symbolize information, Rick Briggs, a NASA specialist in synthetic intelligence, even advised it was “tempting to think about [ancient Indians] as laptop scientists with out the hardware.”

This has led some observers to invest that the deep construction of Indian tradition has nurtured a cultural proclivity for working with the formal hierarchies of code.

Although Chandra edges very shut to creating such a declare in Geek Chic, in particular person he was reluctant to make a direct connection. “I’m very hesitant to make an enormous deterministic declare about an extremely complicated tradition that’s existed for a lot of hundreds of years,” Chandra says. “The well-known line about India is ‘no matter you may say about India the alternative can be true.’ What I might be prepared to say is that India is a tradition wherein the pursuit of data has at all times been of major and over-riding and large concern, regardless of the destruction of these indigenous information methods by colonialism and the laying waste of an extremely wealthy financial system, which firstly of the colonial interval was one of many largest if not the most important on the earth.”

Then what was the purpose, I ask, of Chandra’s voluminous Panini weblog submit. As a result of the implication that I gathered from it was that Granthika itself was additionally a type of grammar, an try and do for artistic expression what Panini had performed for Sanskrit.

Chandra now appears tremendous making an enormous declare about Indian tradition. “The fascinating factor in regards to the Indian mental custom and scientific custom is that it’s so grammar-based,” he says. “We’ve tended to think about every thing as a type of grammar. Whereas within the West the impulse is to make use of arithmetic to know the universe, in India it has at all times been grammar—grammar that’s conceived as a system that has elements that work together with one another. That’s how Panini thinks of language. You begin with the smallest models, phonemes, and you then construct that up into roots and nominal stems and you then mix these into phrases after which phrases mix collectively to make a language. And so you haven’t simply the weather however you even have their interplay.” You’ve, in impact, a system for representing complexity.

Chandra’s love for India, for its hectic visitors and its linguistic Babel and its stark contradictions, is clear in practically each sentence he writes. It’s one of many principal causes Sacred Video games grew into such a monster. He was obsessively pushed to seize as a lot as he may of an infinitely complicated actuality.

That impulse led him into politically risky floor. Chandra tells me that the second season of the Netflix Sacred Video games collection provoked a backlash as a result of some viewers noticed the portrayal of a key character, a Hindu guru, as a critique of India’s Hindu custom. Below immediately’s right-wing Hindu authorities, led by Narendra Modi, deviations from the social gathering line on historical past or faith are punished, evincing a troubling cultural narrow-mindedness that runs counter to simply about every thing Chandra seeks to evoke in fiction.

“The scary half,” Chandra says, “is the unquestioning acceptance and glorification of the premodern, and in addition the flattening out of all of the complexity that existed earlier than. Within the Indian polity there’s an effort to declare that only one model of that previous historical past is the one that’s speculated to be the right one—and all people else who tries to introduce complexity or critiques this concept are anti-nationals, they’re traitors, they’re coolies of the West. That to me is in full contradiction with the complexity and the openness of the Indian custom.”

Listening to Chandra pivot from Sanskrit and grammar to politics and historical past, I all of the sudden bear in mind Ashwin Sanghi’s thesis that Granthika would allow him to unravel complicated karmic equations. Between the strains of Chandra’s criticism in regards to the Indian proper wing’s straitjacket on historic interpretation, I heard a author bemoaning the shortcoming of individuals to know the true complexity of the world, and even be allowed to symbolize it. (I additionally heard a author all too precisely anticipating the political conflagration in India incited by the Muslim-excluding Citizenship Act handed in December.)

And I started to see Granthika as greater than only a software to eradicate grinding. It is usually, ideally, a software that might allow writers to grapple extra deftly with the infinite, with all “the galaxies within the sky all linked, no starting, no finish.” Or on the very least, it’s a press release of objective: That is what we must be utilizing computer systems to do.

The fifth-century Indian thinker Bhartrhari, Chandra tells me, wrote that “grammar is the door to liberation.”

“Which sounds fully loopy,” Chandra says. “What does that even imply? However what he’s attempting to get at is that for any system, such because the system of life and loss of life and rebirth, in case you can perceive its elements and perceive the way it works, then you may escape it.”

Granthika, then, is a grammar for the liberation of writers. It’s meant to free us from the shackles inhibiting us from getting on with the vital, arduous stuff: the duty of representing the world in all its breathtaking, multifarious complexity. At a time when the planet is overrun by authoritarians trying to impose slim dogmas, it’s arduous to think about a lot that might be extra vital.

At one level in Crimson Earth and Pouring Rain, the monkey god Hanuman is requested, “What’s the highest pleasure?”

“To listen to a very good story,” he solutions.

If Vikram Chandra succeeds in scratching his itch to, as he places it, reduce his personal “rattling cognitive load and make it bit simpler to know his personal narrative considering,” then it’s a very good wager that there shall be extra good tales coming into the world. In that case, Ganesha and Hanuman and a universe of readers will all be delighted.


Andrew Leonard has been writing about know-how and tradition for 25 years. He’s at the moment engaged on a guide about Sichuan meals and globalization.


Correction: An earlier model of this text stated that Jerry Pournelle wrote his personal word-processing program, dubbed Ezekial. In reality, he constructed his personal laptop dubbed Ezekial.


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