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An Interview with Vikram Chandra

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"Sacred Games" and Detective Fiction

AC: Going back to something you said earlier, about noir. Many reviewers have mentioned Chandler when discussing Sacred Games, noting the hard-boiled detective influences on the novel, and you also reference Dev Anand, who I understand was a kind of noir figure in Indian film. So I wondered, first of all, if you could talk about how you work with the detective fiction genre and against it in the book, and second of all, if there is another Indian tradition that you were also working with.

VC: I was certainly aware of all the detective predecessors, so to speak. In certain strands of Hindu thought, there is this idea that the only way you can transcend form is through form. In a lot of spiritual pursuits, for instance, they want to deny the physical world because they think that's what is going to take you toward enlightenment. In this way of thinking the only way you can get enlightenment is through the world itself. I actually enjoy these forms very much, and I really didn't want to do some kind of pastiche or parody or a condescending literary look at them because that's too easy, and because all you end up doing is creating another form for yourself, even as you pretend that you're above form.

In reference to Dev Anand, he was in a lot of early black and white 50s versions of mysteries and crime stories. What's also interesting about those movies is that to an Indian who has grown up later than that, someone like Sartaj Singh, they also represent a certain kind of innocence that's lost forever.

There's something paradoxically sweet about those movies. They embody a kind of post-Independence optimism that things are going to get better rapidly; now that we're free, everything's going to be OK. This is something that people like Sartaj certainly don't feel anymore. They're at the other end of the spectrum: they're not convinced anything's going to get better ever. So Dev Anand works as a kind of marker of that old kind optimism and hope and innocence.

Patterns in Nature and Narrative

AC:I read an article in which you talked about having worked as a computer programmer and how as a result you think about writing in terms of patterns, both in terms of how human lives play out and how as writers we work with narrative patterns. There is an aspect of the book's structure that is like a mosaic, with the insets, for instance, and I wondered if part of the pleasure for you in taking on something this epic is that you have more lives, more stories, to play with.

VC: I was actually thinking about that recently. Right now I'm in the middle of a book called Dreaming in Code, by Scott Rosenberg. In it, he follows Mitch Kapor, one of the inventors of Lotus 1-2-3, who then started on this really optimistic project of building what Rosenberg calls transcendent software. But the trouble is, they get stuck in this endless loop. I think part of the problem is that they do a lot of upfront planning. They're trying to make this huge epic thing. I think for me what works is doing it from the ground up. If you concentrate on the details and follow the individual lives, and work on the particular scenes and their rhythms, it often seems to me that a pattern emerges naturally out of that. You get to the bigger by following the small.

AC: So then in the editing process, you look at what you've created and find the patterns and threads?

VC: Yes, exactly. Sometimes the pattern emerges in surprising ways. Because the subconscious, if you're doing good work, is also working on these things. Then you think, "Oh my God, I've done this thing and now I can see the same image is repeated three times in the book." It's a wonderful moment of discovery because you know it has a kind of organic unity. There's been a lot of talk in math and physics, especially over the past 20 years, about how you can set up very simple mathematical rules and out of those emerges what first looks like chaos, but if you take a longer view of it, that chaos settles into this really beautiful pattern, like a fractal.

And on that, a couple of things. These patterns exist in nature to a very large degree: there's a kind of structure that we can see. And then as human organisms we depend on our ability to discern patterns. The brain is one huge pattern-recognizing unit. There are all these interesting experiments in another book, Phantoms in the Brain. He talks about how the blind spots in our eyes are filled in by the brain, for instance. In another study the subject is made to sit on one side of a very wide table. Then somebody at the other end puts out their arm so that it looks to the subject like it's his or her arm extending ten feet and coming out on the other end of the table. The brain creates this illusion because it wants to connect these two things. It wants to fill in these gaps.

AC: It's the same even with reading. We don't read every letter; we recognize patterns.

VC: Exactly. And the way we read fiction is the way we want to read the universe. We want to discover structure and therefore meaning in it. We are driven by this need. Stories in a sense also operate like that. We want to structure experience and then find meaning in it. It's how we live. I guess the other razor-sharp edge is that when you build a pattern, you exclude something else. So in the narrative of the nation-state, if you say, "I, on this side of the border, am part of this nation," then the person on the other side becomes foreign, and then all kinds of wars start. So it's a very double-edged type of proclivity.

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