Life – Stranger than fiction but less fun

It is truly a surreal world we are living in. I would think that you, my fellow travellers on this blog, are the privileged lot, in a slightly inconvenienced but hopefully safe place. With time on our hands, creativity is flourishing, as are human connections. Philosophy has gone mainstream as we are forced to ruminate on the meaning and purpose of life. Like most of you, I have had the time to ponder on how the new normal will emerge from our current situation.

Some ongoing macro trends seem to be getting crystalised for our descendants to look back on. 2020: the year when the global geo-political shift – the resurgence of Asia – was sealed; globalisation was reversed even as adoption of technology became ubiquitous. Data is very much the new oil, both subject to judicious extraction and now virtually free. We are seeing an extinction of phrases from the lexicon like ‘Monday to Friday’, ‘9 to 5’ , ‘rush hour’, even ‘serendipity’ in this lockdown world : surely our great grandchildren will ask their parents what these concepts even were. On many of these, it looks like the pendulum has swung to the other side during the lockdown, but it may defy laws of motion and not go all the way back. Currently, people do not have a choice, but wfh , hbl (home based learning) and the like are here to stay, and increasingly feasible, for a significant portion of our lives,

Personally, I am using this sheltered existence next to Stanford campus to continue my renaissance. There is plenty on offer this Spring Quarter to Zoom into and I have packed in a lot of engrossing courses. Be warned, with so much time on my hands, I will likely take two editions of this blog to share my enrichment experience.

Germany in 5 Words” is organized around five German words (most of them barely translatable) central to German culture, concepts that have retained their power into the present moment.  German history, literature, philosophy, etc. to modern political questions that Germany has answered quite differently from its neighbors. For instance: Why is nuclear power seen as deeply problematic in Germany and given little thought to in France? Why is Germany’s relationship to its war crimes so different from Japan’s? Why are immigration debates in Germany so different from those in other European nations?  

The five words are “Kultur”, “Ausland”, “Deutschland”, “Vergangenheits-bewältigung” and “Umwelt”. These do not exactly mean the following but roughly translate into “Culture”, “Foreign”, “Germany”, “Coping with the past” and “Environment”. Each word is to be covered in 4 lectures over ten weeks.

We have completed a few captivating sessions around the role of music in German culture with focus on Wagner. Beyond listening to symphonies and viewing operas on our own time, the Prof Zoomed us a video excerpt from the Tom Cruise film Valkyrie, where he plays Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, one of the key plotters selected to assassinate Hitler. We watch the scene where Wagner’s opera piece Valkyrie (from his music drama The Ring of the Nibelung) is playing on a gramophone in the Colonel’s home, as his young children frolic around. The Colonel is enjoying the stylistic melody and getting  into a trance when in the midst of the dramatic music, there is a moment where his youngest daughter, a toddler, playfully adorns a Nazi peaked cap. Just then, there is the sound of an air raid – serving as a leitmotif for him. The ephemeral innocence in the scene vanishes and the expression on Tom Cruise’s face changes as he rudely reckons with the stark reality of war, and his own role-to-be in ending it. I had enjoyed the movie several years ago, but had probably missed this subtle appreciation. 

In these lectures, I have had a profound realisation: Music and the Holocaust come together in that shadow: one of the most beautiful things created by man, and one of the worst things human beings have ever done. Wagner, the mad genius, was more than a composer. He also influenced Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich, even though he was already dead when the 12-year-old Hitler heard his music live for the first time. Describing the experience, during which he stood in a standing-room-only section of the theater, Hitler wrote: “I was captivated immediately.”

A question that gets raised is: “Should we allow ourselves to listen to Wagner’s works with pleasure, even though we know that he was an anti-Semite?” There’s a bigger issue behind this question: “Can Germans enjoy any part of their history in a carefree way?”. This is thought-provoking for each of us with our diverse world experiences and history. We still have a few more weeks for Word 4 and I will likely expand my personal reflections later.

The course “Dangerous Ideas” is offered by the Humanities Department. Ideas matter. Concepts such as revolution, tradition and hell have inspired social movements, shaped political systems, and dramatically influenced the lives of individuals. Others, like immigration, universal basic income, and youth play an important role in contemporary debates. All of these ideas are contested, and they have real power to change lives, for better and for worse. Each week is an idea presented by a different faculty member.

The first lecture was “Tradition: The Enemy of Progress?” by Mark Applebaum, a music professor, virtuoso composer and jazz pianist. He judged tradition and progress as being both good and bad. He talked of the role of improvisation (he has created electroacoustic instruments like the “Mouseketier” consisting of threaded rods, nails, combs, springs, squeaky wheels, and a toilet tank flotation bulb) and having the courage to “move away from a good thing”. Some quotes that stayed with me: 

    1. “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” – Pablo Picasso. To me, this lucidly explains Federer’s artistry.

2. “You know why I quit playing ballads, because I love playing ballads.” – Miles Davis. To me, this is M.S Dhoni. 

The two quotes above immediately made me reflect on my learning in the previous Quarter Neuroscience class on Brain Plasticity. We studied how our Brain (specifically the motor cortex) is wired to facilitate ‘practice makes perfect’; and the release of dopamine in the amygdala as a reward motivator for pleasure. My brain is still fine and is connecting the dots.

3 “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” – Arthur Schopenhauer. To me, this is disruption in a nutshell. 

The professor talked about unlearning – how sometimes to move forward, you have to move back (to me, a wise way to get out of a steep bunker is by chipping in a direction away from the flag; something I rarely do). In the context of change, there was a fun discussion on the Beatles (they bridged the generation gap) and The Who (go back and listen to “My Generation”- I did).

He shared the dangerous social idea : the power of Me vs. we: How, in a jazz ensemble, each time the soloist breaks out from the ensemble, it enhances both the other players’ individual freedom and the cohesion of the group.

He ended with “Progress: the Enemy of Tradition?An old joke came to mind about the sports-philistine who arrives a few hours late to watch a Wimbledon match, looks at the score at ‘1 set all’ and nonchalantly remarks “Good, no one is ahead, I haven’t missed anything!”

This lecture was three weeks ago and I am still reeling!

My favourite and most stressful course is the Fiction Writing Workshop. I am in class along with 10 undergraduates who, of course, are fantastic writers. Their writing fills me with awe, respect and joy but does not intimidate me. On the contrary, it inspires me to try and keep up – hang in there. After all, I have much more life content than them. Or so I thought. I got a setback in the second class where the reading was “Don’t Write What You Know”. The author Bret Anthony Johnston writes in this essay ”…for people who believe they have rich life experiences. Encouraging them not to write what they know sounds as wrongheaded as a football coach telling a quarterback with a bazooka of a right arm to ride the bench. For them, the advice is confusing and heartbreaking, maybe even insulting. For me, it’s the difference between fiction that matters only to those who know the author and fiction that, well, matters.”

Essentially, he recommends to use your experiences as scaffolding that is used to build a story but is then brought down until finally it does not exist. Use your story not to express yourself but to escape yourself. Upon reading this sagacious advice, my confidence waned, but my curiosity sprawled. I have put away my baggage and am now learning some great new skills – concepts like point of view, narrative distance (my distance from you; but in fiction, between the reader and the character!), shape of a story etc.

A 1000 words short story took a lot of effort, but here it is – sharing below my first stab at Fiction Writing.


A tall man leaned somewhat precariously over the knee high parapet. The unfinished brick wall on the roof was less of a protection and more a cautionary reminder that he was three floors above street level. He peered down to the lane below as he heard some raised voices. It seemed to be just a loud argument with a few people on the street joining in. The rays of the hot afternoon sun struggled to reach the narrow lane some 50 feet below – the fracas was not worth putting under a spotlight. The man went back to looking up at the cumulonimbus clouds in the clear blue sky, his mind conjuring animal shapes – a bear jumping on a mountain lion, playfully not menacingly. His eyes caught some smoke on the horizon rising from the Himalayas. But this was nothing out of the ordinary so they moved on to scout the surroundings. The view of the picturesque landscape was interrupted by laundry hanging on clotheslines on adjacent rooftops, the clothes fluttering peacefully in the breeze. He could see Shikaras float in Dal lake in the distance, its water deep blue and partially covered with water lilies and hyacinth. Spring was still in the air, but the heat of the overhead sun belied this fact. A seasonal change was coming.

There was a sudden loud noise from the road. Was it a gunshot or a burst tyre? Hari’s brain raced as he tried to guess what might have gone wrong. A knot tightened in his stomach and he hoped that his instinct was incorrect. With a quick gesture up at the sky to say a silent prayer, Hari leaned further out from the parapet and craned his neck down the road to investigate any unusual activity in the direction of the mosque. The sun was still too high for the 3 pm congregation. And he could not have missed the call for prayer – the azaan. He whisked out the phone from his kurta pocket to confirm there was no alert or change in plan. A blank screen drew a sharp sigh of relief. Would Ameen live up to his word?- After all, this had been a swiftly crafted plan with little time to rehearse. A mere 100 feet from here, three key ISIS operatives were due for a rendezvous with their Commander. Hari’s covert operation to encounter them was barely 90 minutes away. The valuable information had come from Hari’s source Ameen who was going to be attending the clandestine meeting as the Commander’s confidant.

Hari had total trust in Ameen and was confident about the intelligence. He had assured Ameen safe passage for his wife and infant children out of Syria. It was a well deserved reward since the information was priceless. It was also perfect leverage because the family had that morning been shifted to refuge under the Indian Mission in Syria. Hari had known Ameen intimately since childhood. Growing up as neighbours in Kashmir, they had played together and often had meals at each other’s homes. Each relished the other’s distinctly different cuisine. Hari loved Ammi’s lamb Biryani and mince samosas and was teased at his own home about his conversion – to becoming a meat-lover. They had together pursued countless quaint hobbies like kite flying and collecting match box covers. They had run up and down small streets in Srinagar, jumping in and out of gutters, rummaging through grubby dumpsters and trash cans in search of unique artifacts to add to their coveted collection. Both were proud that their younger sister Ameena had been delivered at home by Hari’s mother, while the boys had assisted by boiling and carrying pails of water. The strength of their bond had not weakened even though Ameen, upon turning 18, had mysteriously disappeared. It was a turbulent time of insurgency and rumours abounded, but Hari’s family could not imagine that the sweet young boy would have become misguided. Twelve years would pass before Hari, by then a Major in the Indian Army, would hear from Ameen again. He had filled in Hari on his arduous journey – forced radicalisation and induction into a jihadist faction – and was now eager to return. He had been tasked by the militant group to arrange a meeting in his hometown due to his intimate knowledge of Kashmir, and thought it was a perfect opportunity to escape the clutches of the insidious web he had got woven into.

Hari needed to stay vigilant and snapped back from his childhood memories. He awaited a text message from Ameen to give the final signal to his team to storm the building and neutralise the terrorists. The Commando team was positioned in the building down the road from the rendezvous and would enter simultaneously from the street and the roof. His phone beeped, it was a terse “Now”. The moment was here. He typed “Now” and sent his own message. He exhaled slowly and deeply, looking in the direction of the building in the distance. His ears were alert though he knew he was too far to hear or see any activity. It was an excruciating wait for an update from his team, it seemed an eternity before the next beep sounded. Hari’s face turned ashen white as he read his screen “ Fail. Ambush. 9 dead”.

A shadow came over the man as the sun went behind some clouds. He seemed to slouch and then kneel on to the floor of the roof. The Muezzin’s call for prayer resounded from the loudspeaker atop the mosque. The only other sound was of chirping birds returning to their roost in the evening.

10 thoughts on “Life – Stranger than fiction but less fun

  1. Varun Chugh

    Thank you for sharing. I didn’t know there was this side of you which was hidden inside the numbers and graphs where you would have spent most of your time analysing. Please keep brewing this Creative side of yours. Enjoyed the fiction and could see it playing as a part of a movie while reading it.

    World is changing and we are adapting to the new reality of virtual interaction. I am picking up phone and getting into conversations with friends and family. Realised that everyone is still there where we left them and sometimes didn’t extend the hand to reach out. Discovering the new reality of video chats with friends rather than just audio. I noticed my transformation from texting to audio to video in connecting with friends and family. This definitely has an underline hidden message that I am missing the touch of friend or family outside your home and noticing that I am still a social animal. Sometimes these little thing, shaking a hand, a hug or just a pat has been taken for granted. Are we living in the fear of virus? Can’t we still do that? I think we can with our colleagues, friends and family. If I can have that, I am sure some other will also have that confidence and we will be able to come out of this. You be safe and healthy and love to the family.


  2. Kiran Kandade

    Wow! The story had me riveted, Amit. I so enjoy your musings and this story just blew me. I always look forward to the next edition of your blogs.


    1. Thanks Sin….getting some great feedback, comments and connections. Childhood friends – Sanjoy and Bips , school…., IIT folks I didn’t know well, blogging is a very satisfying journey. 300 reads overnight 👍🏾.


  3. Sudarshan V Athreya

    2020 will indeed be a watershed year in the history of modern human civilisation. China sneezed and the entire world has caught cold. We still appear to be a long way away to understanding what new realities could emerge. May be a new BC (Before Covid).

    Congratulations on your first fiction writing. It is a professional story that could well be adopted immediately as a Bollywood movie (replete with backstories) shot amidst the picturesque background of Himalayas. Wondering which actors would be casted for the roles of Hari and Ameen, Hrithik and Tiger 🙂

    A very apt title called Faith. Needed most in these times.



  4. Meera Gupta

    Read comments. first time .Really enjoyed them .

    On Sat, 25 Apr 2020 at 8:53 AM, Amit’s Second Innings wrote:

    > Amit’s Musings posted: ” It is truly a surreal world we are living in. I > would think that you, my fellow travellers on this blog, are the privileged > lot, in a slightly inconvenienced but hopefully safe place. With time on > our hands, creativity is flourishing, as are human connec” >


  5. Pingback: Literature and the Brain – Amit's Second Innings

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