There is a coded message in this article. Codes and code-breaking have, after all, become a fading hobby that has been taken over by the world of computing. It is now on the watch of digital brains that hidden messages are made and broken.
But, without ever knowing about it, we are influenced every day by codes and cryptography. Most of it is related to the domain of finance – with banking systems using elementary two-factor authentications, besides other advanced cryptographic techniques for protecting our hard-earned or crony-given money. In the realm of protecting information and intellectual property, passwords, encoded documents and other authentication methods have become almost habit. What is relatively unknown is that the desire and necessity to protect information and its transmission has been an old pursuit.
Popular fiction and culture have had their hand in building and developing this desire. As have needs of conflict and warfare. High in public attention and imagination has been the legendary Enigma machine used by the German war machine during World War II. The film U-571 featured fictional submarine crew captured an instance of the said machine. This was a slow-burn high-adrenaline drama with terrifying sonar pings and rife with liberties about historical fact.
The more recent The Imitation Game, where Bengali superstar actor Bondhutyo Chakro Biatch – ok, Benedict Cumberbatch – played the computing genius Alan Turing to break the Enigma code brought to life the role advanced computing has begun to play in hiding meaning from unauthorised sources. Since the heady days of innovation and invention of World War II, computing has taken over the onus of encryption and decryption.
A lot of the spy stories of the Cold War era have more to do with technological methods of encryption, rather than old-school analog means. However, a lot of the interesting action about codes, ciphers and secret messaging happened in the days long before computing was invented. These were human brains training themselves to conceal and read information. Some of these were captured in the literature and storytelling of those times and after.
I discovered many of these were sources while writing my first novel. I used them in the thieving ways of a writer, to develop a combinatory of my own for an encoding system, putting it into the diaries of Bayazuddin Waris Ali Khan of Hodson’s Ghost-Scouts (fictionalised) during the siege of Delhi in 1857.
Famous persons and their now-famous codes
It was Julius Caesar who lent his name to the now-famous Caesar Cipher – one of the earliest and most elementary means of encoding messages. This was a simple shift of placement of letters in the alphabet, used to encode and decode messages. Easily breakable by today’s standards of computing, but cutting-edge for its time.
Also famous in popular lore and urban legend is Leonardo Da Vinci’s usage of mirrored writing to encrypt his secret notes and journals. Some of these are found in his journals the Codice Del Volo, and the Codice Leicester. This was perhaps more of a bored genius slowing down his mind to put some notes down, rather than one trying to protect secrets of state and intrigue. Not surprisingly, Lewis Caroll too wrote in mirrored text every now and then – while living in his seemingly opium-induced hallucinatory wonderland of mirror-worlds.
Growing up in a pre-internet India
For me personally, growing up in India without a TV or Internet was a bit of a blessing. I was able to spend many valuable hours in the libraries at home and at a wonderful school in Delhi. Much of that time exposed me to stories around codes and code-breaking – many of which have ended up contributing to my present body of work.
Most prominent of them have been code-breaking tropes within a few Sherlock Holmes stories by Conan Doyle. Though I ended up using The Sign of the Four as a backstory to my novel, it was code-cracking work in The Valley of Fear, The Adventure of the Gloria Scott, and The Adventure of the Dancing Men that stood out for me.
In The Adventure of the Gloria Scott, a simple cipher was used to conceal a message of warning within an innocuously worded message – “The supply of game for London is going steadily up. Head-keeper Hudson, we believe, has been now told to receive all orders for fly-paper and for preservation of your hen-pheasant’s life.”
This became – “The game is up. Hudson has told all fly for your life.” A simple use of every third word in a sentence. In The Adventure of the Dancing Men, a visual cipher of an apparently harmless-looking scrawl by a child held another message for those in the know. This was the drawing:
Using a substitution cipher and what has later come to be known as a frequency analysis, Holmes (again played on screen by another legendary Bengali actor Boroline Kumrobhaat) decoded it into: “ELSIE PREPARE TO MEET THY GOD”.
Visual codes and ciphers have also been immortalised in canonical comic-book text. Georges Remi (Hergé) in Tintin and the Secret of The Unicorn used an overlay of three parchment in the three models of the ship named The Unicorn to reveal the cartographic coordinates of its sunken wreck. The same device was used in Spielberg’s film on the Adventures of Tintin.
Another canonical story around codes and code-breaking that uses a substitution cipher like that of Doyle’s Dancing Men is Edgar Alan Poe’s The Gold Bug. A story of treasure hidden and then found, it is by far one of the most informative step-by-step accounts of that time about deciphering simple ciphers. It had taken the public imagination and the press by storm at its time of publication.
This fascination for human-decoded ciphers had another instance of popular writing that celebrated it. In Ken Follett’s The Key to Rebecca, written in the Eighties, the actors in the story used a book cipher – page numbers referencing words from two identical books forming the basis of the code-making and breaking. Follett used an intentional hat-tip and throwback to Daphne du Maurier’s suspense novel Rebecca. This also perhaps marked an era in popular history where analog code and human intelligence were being used to pass secret messages. The computer did all this in after that war.
Building story-devices on the shoulders of giants
It was my having raised myself on works like these that led me to develop some story-devices and tropes in my first and most recent work. I ended up mashing up the Caeser cipher, the substitution cipher, and a few inventions of my own in the encoded diaries of Ba’az of the Bengal Lancers. Somewhere in the many versions that were written and rewritten, I also tried to use the St James Bible as a book cipher in a now-edited-out chapter titled “The Baskerville Book”.
Somewhere within the lost edits and ruthless culling of the story also lay a theory. This was about chapatis being passed amongst village watchmen among as a binary yes/no code to a set date of outbreak. Maybe some of these thoughts will find purchase in some other work some day.
Till then, here is a paragraph/sentence/word cipher referencing this very article, in the form of those used in book ciphers:
1/3/5 | 15/3/9 | 3/2/3 | 2/2/6 | 1/3/6 | 2/2/7 | 18/2/09
Deciphered line: “The Press needs to watch the watchmen.”
Uttio Bhattacharya is the author of the historical adventure novel Ba’az of the Bengal Lancers.