My name is Jaya Padmanabhan. Twenty-four out of every million people may know who I am on this planet. (That number is based on the factoid that there are 172,000 monthly readers of the magazine that I edit: India Currents.) So I was justifiably surprised and incredibly honored to be asked to give the speech today. I always believed that there were rules to these things but thank you Dr. Khuri, Rule Bender.
I’d like to borrow a line from the movie The Second Best Marigold Hotel, one of the most extravagantly boring movies ever made despite some serious aging good looks. In the movie, Maggie Smith declares to Dev Patel “I’m not here to give advice. I’m here to share opinions.” That was one of the few things I took away from the movie. So here they are my opinions.
Twenty years ago I took a class on Computational Theory and I loved it. I was fascinated by the idea of unsolvable problems, by the intractable nature of mathematical dilemmas. Twenty years ago, I listened to Professor Sami Khuri talk about genetic algorithms and I saw the beautiful complexity of heuristic search methodology. Twenty years ago, I was one among you, sitting on a chair listening to a speech given by I don’t know who and wondering where I would be twenty years from graduation, and whether I would be applying what I learned in the classroom. I got my first job based on my passion for NP Complete problems and genetic algorithms, subjects I absorbed in the classrooms that you have sat in. And I was excited then as you probably are today. Yet twenty years later I stand before you as a writer.
And that, ladies and gentleman is what I am here to talk to you about. Life Choices and Algorithms.
Graduates, faculty, parents Congratulations! And graduates, class of 2015, while the rest of your story is still to be written, some of the most interesting chapters are done, and whether it is a Narrow Road to the Deep North, or The Road Less Traveled, or the Road to Utopia you are now the one setting the line and page breaks. So keep your eye out and your hopes up.
Many of you will be heading out to join startups and large and small enterprises. In a few years some of you will start your own companies and then one or two or maybe a handful of you will be listed on Forbes 500. Your salary and benefits will allow you to buy those Teslas and Louis Vuitton handbags and you will take your beautiful families on vacations to Aruba and you will dine at restaurants and order dishes described as hand-cut silken cheese from brown cows fed on organic hay and artistically stimulated into reduced green spinach with a splash of satin cream. It will be the same dish that your grandmother once served you, which she calls palak paneer. But that’s what your money will get you. A nice seat at the table and a beautiful description. And, of course, the Louis Vuitton bag.
Yes, I am a writer. I am one of those who gave it up, took that fork in the road that brought me little money and 24 out of a million people worth of recognition.
I’m a culture writer. I write about identity and being an American from India. I write about belonging and integration and alienation. Writing to me is not much different from coding. It’s merely more refined and less defined. I like to think of writing like it’s a set of codes and trees and data structures that I need to make sense of. So I apply what I was taught in this university to my words. I give it a pattern, and configure my paragraphs so that my story is directly affected by the word to sentence scripting that goes into it.
So why become a writer? I’d like to start by telling you of an incident.
When one of my twins was seven years old, she and her friend Mary were standing in line during recess. They had just come out of a history class. Mary, without much preamble, turned to my daughter and explained it to her: “if you’d been born 200 years ago,” she said, “you would have been my slave.” At seven, my daughter couldn’t make sense of that remark, so she came home and asked me if what Mary had said was true. I could see that my daughter’s self-image had suddenly changed and she desperately wanted me to refute what she had heard. All of a sudden she was forced into the realization that there were things beyond her control that had tremendous significance. It was an inflection point in her life. It was one of the gravest moments of my life.
There was no perfect answer to my daughter’s question. If I’d been born 200 years ago, would I have been a slave? Yes was not entirely right, and no seemed like a dissociation from the black experience. And I wanted my seven-year-old daughter to feel the utter devastation of slavery and to not want to be white, something other than what she is, in our multi-colored world. I understood that this was too much for a child to grasp. So I wanted to record the moment for later.
There were many such moments in the years that followed. It became an increasingly complex problem that I grappled with. I found that I had a crazy compulsion to write and then to read what I had written to make sense of a particularly significant moment.
If I’d had to write an algorithm at age thirty that could deterministically predict what I would be doing for the rest of my life, it would have been a straightforward one. The inputs and variables were steady and strong to become a software engineer. At age forty, however, the variables changed and the predictions began to fluctuate. And that, I think, is the irrationality of living.
More and more I began to read and think of what identity really meant. For many it’s their job, for others it is fame or friends or fortune or status and for others it’s keeping our spirits alive within our skins. For me, it’s feeling the connection. I feel it when I listen to a beautiful rhythm played by a subway drummer with dark glasses on. I feel it when I’m reading a sentence that is textured into such beauty that I must stop to reflect. I felt it when I sat on a staircase 16 years ago and watched my two-year old daughters negotiate the stairs towards me. I feel it when I read about the Selma march in America or the Dandi march in India and wonder what it would take to knock me down. And how many knocks it would take to keep me physically down. I feel it when ordinary people do extraordinary things. And I feel it when my daughters ask me what the meaning of color really is.
The Harlem writer James Baldwin once said, “Insofar as you think you are white, you are irrelevant.” In today’s context I’d like to believe that, “Insofar as you think of the color of skin, you are irrelevant.” Events in the past few months have brought home once again that racism is the discoloration of minds and has less to do with the skin than with inherited attitudes. And that is what I want to convey to my readers and to my children. And that is why I write. The little seven-year-old Mary was trying to make sense of a history lesson and to her the differentiating factor was the color of skin. To my darker hued children, color did not have much meaning till they encountered that life lesson.
So I arrived at a point in my life where I hungered for a new awareness. I began to write and publish and I grew as a writer. I experienced the headiness that comes from bringing to the world a truth, even if it’s an inconvenient one. I often got it wrong, but when it was right, it was beautiful.
I loved what I did in my twenties, but I love what I do today even more. And I never forget that I’m here at this juncture of my life because I took classes in Basic and Pascal. I’ve been advising my daughter who wants to be a human rights lawyer that it’s important to take a coding class, just so it can instruct her as a thinker.
There are many similarities between writing and programming. Not the least is the analysis that must be part of non-fiction and even fiction writing.
Many of you in this audience may have experienced that aha moment when you cracked the code to an algorithm or figured out a solution to a problem you think nobody else has. In my opinion every code has been cracked, every problem has been solved. What we are innovating is a new set of problems and hence new solutions to these new problems. To keep those aha moments coming.
It’s no different with writing. I experience many aha moments when I write. Only to realize a little later that someone else has beaten me to it. The plot has already been written, the title already taken. It has already been said. So I just need to say it sooner or better or funnier or in my own style.
One of the biggest perks of my job is that I am expected to read. I have always been somewhat of an avid, almost greedy reader. I don’t have to wait to find time for it anymore. I must read in order to survive as a writer. Though strangely enough I’ve come across more writers who don’t read (enough) than readers who don’t write (enough). My mother can testify to my obsessive reading habits since she has caught me on more than one occasion reading what she calls a “storybook” instead of preparing for the chemistry test or bio midterm in high school. She lives with me now and has a permanent furrow on her forehead. I believe it showed up after I told her that I was not merely reading one but actually writing a storybook!
The challenge in the choices we make is that whatever we do, we must “think different,” to borrow from Apple. How we do that, what we use to do that or where we do that does not matter.
So as you leave San Jose State University, my hope is that you look for and make those connections. Feel the empathy of other experiences and enter your cubicles and garages powered by those feelings. Be ready to be different, make a difference and differentiate wisely as I know you will. Thank you!
Jaya Padmanabhan is the editor of India Currents magazine.