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Literature and the Brain

Three years ago at Stanford, I caught a bug. I am not talking about the affliction that plagued us all globally. I had been fortunate to escape in 2020, though I did inevitably catch COVID a couple of years later, while ensconced in the warm cocoon of home in Singapore. This event did have a rather pleasing and reassuring end, since my body combated the deadly virus on its own. Given my medical history, my oncologist had been all set to advise taking Paxlovid, a drug sparingly prescribed in Singapore, but its use was obviated. We were all reassured that my previously challenged immune system had stepped up well to the challenge.

The onset of COVID in 2020 had relegated the latter half of our DCI Fellowship at Stanford to Zoom, as all classroom contact had been shut down. We had stayed on in Menlo Park and completed our ‘distance learning’ from just outside the campus. At that stage, our Dean had very generously made us an offer, to return to campus anytime over the next three years, to do a Make-up Quarter. With the pandemic having receded, I am now back for the Winter Quarter along with a dozen of our cohort (of 2019-20). Gauri, the inveterate artist, is immersed in her thespian journey (Railgaadi and more), so I am flying solo this time.

And my bug is back! That’s what prompted me to write a childhood memory last week as I restarted this blog and shared my memoir. I do appreciate the warm reception from my followers, all four of you! I received some insightful and fun feedback. One school friend, then a junior, now a UK-based Senior Physician and Thoracic (a Pulmonologist to the Americans), shared his memory – “The same Mr Singh thrashed me with a TT racquet”. I replied to him in jest with a suggestion that we initiate a ‘Class action’. Maybe we should look within our school network for pro bono lawyers, after all they would empathise. Another dear friend, my bff, asked of me “Why did you replace DV with Mr Singh?”. That query led me down a rabbit hole. I will spare you the gory details, but it transpires that circa 1980, I was whacked, not once but on separate occasions by two different educators. In a nutshell, my previous narrative was entirely accurate, but the dramatis personae need a modification, actually only the perpetrator needs to be Mr Varma! And the second slapstick story is kept away for a rainy day.

Having succumbed to the bug, many of the Courses I have enrolled in relate to Writing and Reading! My previous journey on this path is here https://amitsecondchance.com/2020/02/16/literary-pursuits/

Enjoying Neuroscience and Humanities

What falls below, or beyond, rational inquiry? How do we write about the awe we feel in front of certain works of art, in reading lines of poetry or philosophy, or watching a scene in a film without ruining the feeling that drove us to write in the first place?

How does fiction make us better at reading minds? Why do some TV shows get us to believe two contradictory things at once? What do we see when we read; whether the language we speak affects the way we think; and why do different people react differently to the same book. Plus: is free will a fiction, or was I just forced to say that?

Two of my courses cover the themes above. One is Wonder: The Event of Art and Literature, and the other Literature and the Brain. They are totally independent Undergrad courses, though to my brain, they form part of a continuum. They are taught respectively by an Art History Professor and a leading Neuroscientist Professor. Each team up with a different Professor of Comparative Literature. The courses blend principles of Neuroscience, experimental psychology and philosophy with Art History and Literature to make for some truly ‘mind’-blowing discussion, intuitive inferences and mental gymnastics as tips for a Writer.

Reading for me, though very enjoyable, is somewhat of a struggle. So I am delighted that one of the curriculum ‘readings’ is to watch Season 1 of Westworld, the HBO show. I have been goaded for years by my first born to watch this, but finally got down to it only last month, since it was prescribed schoolwork! And what a Masterpiece it is. A strong recommendation in case you are a poor soul who hasn’t partaken it yet. As a courtesy (to the 4000 of you), I will refrain from (m)any spoiler alerts!

Coming back to the subject, claims that the Professor made in class are on the following lines:

Because the brain is a team of rivals, fiction like Westworld can help us cultivate habits of mind that allow us to live better lives. Great works of literature do not have to be didactic. Good writers steer clear of preachy art. In summary, Literature raises questions without trying to teach us anything. Puts a different spin on reading Classics.

More specifically and contemporaneously, Westworld raises questions like:

  1. Would a conscious AI be a ‘person’ in the moral sense?
  2. Could AI ever achieve human style consciousness?
  3. Could AI ever make ‘great’ Art? (Roll over Open AI and Dall e!)
  4. What is the true value of ‘great’?
  5. Are human beings just machines?
  6. Do we have free will?

I can go on but hope this whets your appetite sufficiently to watch WW!. Only Season 1” is my daughter’s command, one I faithfully obey, now (देर आए, दुरुस्त आए).

The other aspects of Literature, discussed in class related to cultural beliefs and psychology. We talked about Bilingualism and Exophonic Writers, the practice of writing in a language that is not one’s own. After all, language is the door to culture. For those who recall my earlier fascination with the Course “German in 5 Words” (link here – https://amitsecondchance.com/2020/04/24/life-stranger-than-fiction-and-also-less-fun/). I continue to aspire to create a Hindi Appreciation Curriculum. It is contingent on when I convince my better half to create some room in her busy life and share some of her समय तथा ज्ञान. In class I reflected on the recent success of her theatrical production Railgaadi with a शुद्ध Hindi script. It was truly amazing how it appealed to a diverse audience of all ages – from high school kids to young adults to senior citizens, parts of the play resonating with all. Which brings me back to my learning in class on how good writers appeal to prejudices in a reader. Cognitive biases are supposed to be a good writer’s best friend, used to hook the reader and misdirect them (like magicians draw their attention away from the real action), to succeed in plot twists. Evidently, Gauri has latent talent and knowledge of empirical and evolutionary psychology to have her finger so firmly on the pulse of her audience. Unless it’s just her startlingly impressive intuition which has frightened me for a long time!. There are plenty of poetics of surprise in her scripts, masterful in their effect.

On a related aspect of socio-psychological beliefs, we also debated another topic close to my heart, how and why Oriental and Western people think differently: Asians more holistically with a focus on relationships; Westerners more reductively with an individualist focus! I learnt about Joseph Henrich and his WEIRD work (Western Educated Industrialised, Rich and Democratic) of history with similar concepts. It felt surreal to be learning about this as I relish my frequent sabbaticals at Stanford, away from my life in Asia, often to test this strongly held belief of mine!

I have picked up lots more material on this fascinating topic which I frankly need to digest. Why? Because I have an Assignment due and the weekend is almost over. I promise to return to add to this. Unless of course, other charming subjects in the coming week have captured my mercurial imagination! There is a plethora of distractions in this candy store.

Adios!

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An Education

It’s great to be back, to this blog, to Stanford, to the Bay Area. It’s appropriate to start with a disclosure.

This blog is not generated by Chat GPT3 (yet). Otherwise I would be more prolific and regular and maybe more readable, who knows! It’s not because of my ethics or integrity that I am taking this direction, it’s because I have myself barely found my voice. This practice is for me to introspect, analyse and enhance my experiences, and verbalise them ‘in my own voice’.

It will take effort to train the Foundation Model, and time and data. So, to go step by step, I will endeavour to generate enough fodder over the next few months to ‘progress’ to the next avatar – creating a digital clone of Amit, the blogger.

Meanwhile, as a warm up, let me start almost at the beginning, a good place to start. What follows is a recollection from school days. It is non-fictional, though some lapses of memory may have necessitated a little embellishment.

As I cast my mind back to middle school days, a warm feeling oozes into me from the memories. I smile as I reflect on those happy childhood days, a sort of impish delight. I was quite a prankster, a back-bencher often up to no good. But luckily I was doing well academically, so the teachers were fond of me and warmly disposed, rather unsuspecting of my devilish activities. I would be the core, often the ringleader of the group, which plotted and planned disruptive distractions in class.

One of these myriad mischiefs is particularly memorable and momentous to me. The scheme was simple and easy to execute – to rub coloured chalk on the teacher’s chair before he arrived. The chair was made of interlaced strips of cane, so the objective was to create a criss-cross imprint on the seat of the teacher’s trousers after he had sat on it for a while.

We planned to pull this prank on our Physics teacher, Mr Singh who was a burly but gentle and affable gent. We regarded him as a real good soul and I was one of his favorite students. He was harmless, but for some strange reason, maybe it was his big bottom, he seemed a perfect target for this practical joke.

The plan was executed one Monday morning, I remember the day vividly. We had a few minutes to set the stage before his arrival in class. To make it a shared task, three of us were to do it jointly. As soon as the previous teacher left, the chosen three rushed to the front of the class, picked up different coloured chalks and furiously rubbed them on the seat of the chair. There was of course a ‘look-out’ in place and when we heard a shout “He’s coming” , we scampered back to our seats at the rear of the classroom. The well used chalks were discarded, mine was flung out of the window. All incriminating evidence was destroyed! 

The class routinely began with a roll-call which Mr Singh used to take while seated. He had his idiosyncratic pronunciation of a few names, and with some, he would always have histrionics which entertained the class.  

“Shar-mish-tha Allu-wah-Liya”.  

“Dam-mika Guna-war-dhana”

That fateful morning, he completed this drill, shut his Notebook and announced “ This week we will do Newton’s Laws of Motion. Open your books on this Chapter”. He then stood up and turned to write on the blackboard. 

Now, we had been unsure of the results of our efforts. The pale-white cane of the chair had barely looked coloured even after we had rubbed it vigorously with chalk. However, what followed was astonishing. To say ‘the plan was a success’ was a gross understatement. 

As Mr Singh turned around, the class roared – in unison. The check pattern was remarkably and faithfully reproduced in kaleidoscopic fashion on his black trousers. The bellows of laughter wouldn’t stop. A couple of kids actually fell off their chair laughing. There was utter commotion in class.

Mr Singh was stunned and almost speechless. He had no idea what had just hit him. He tried to make sense of what was going on but remained in the dark, while the boys and girls continued to be in splits. Some of us were discreetly celebrating our success, while many others more overtly congratulated us. The melee was truly tumultuous and wouldn’t abate. To move the narrative swiftly along, we next spied Mr Singh exit the classroom. A few young ones scampered after him to prolong their mirth – and presumably to inspect the art on his ambulatory backside!

In the classroom, the students who were in front gathered the rest of us to illuminate us. It transpired that Mr Singh, before leaving, had a terse and clear missive, uttered sharply to no one in particular. Essentially it was – “whoever was responsible for whatever had happened had to come and confess to him directly, else he was not coming back to class – ever”. There was also some addendum –  “a very serious matter”, “don’t want to involve the Principal but….”. 

The ramifications were evident as were the next steps. We had had a great success, now the situation had to be redeemed.

After some swift soul-searching and what I recall as ‘mature confabulation’, it was decided that we would have to go and own-up for our naughtiness. “How bad could Mr Singh be?” was the rhetoric in the air. So off went the three of us towards the Staff Room. It was probably going to be the first visit of any of us inside that Room. It almost seemed a privilege and anticipation was in the air.

We entered and spotted our target in the right corner of the almost empty Staff Room. Mr Singh was sitting in a chair by the side of a table stacked with papers. One glance and I recognised them as our Answer submissions for the previous week’s Class Quiz. Presumably he was in the process of marking and  grading them. I smiled to myself at how easy I had found the Test. The three of us filed up in front of him, with me in the lead and therefore closest to him. He looked up at us, examined us and stood up very deliberately. There was an angry scowl on his face. But he spoke quite gently “So you are the culprits. Very smart boys, making fun of your guru! You know what you deserve – ‘Capital punishment’”. Now, none of us had a clue about what that meant, but it was evident that it was something harsh and ominous. It was several years later that I came across this phrase again. It then dawned upon me that he had implied “Corporal Punishment”, when he had threatened us with the death penalty. After all, he was a Science pedagogue, not an English tutor.

But I digress. The three of us stood in front of him. While our heads were bowed and hands behind our back, none of us was particularly contrite. It had been a hugely successful trick and I was thinking of the near-legendary status we would acquire in our peer group. I was lazily trying to keep a smirk off my face, so as not to make the giant get angry. 

To me, Mr Singh’s last comment had been delivered mildly. I decided to raise my face, look him in the eye and mumble “We are sorry, Sir”. I was about to follow it up with a smile, when I saw a flurry of movement and before I could react, he had swung his burly right hand across my face, a resounding slap. It was stinging and I almost fell over with the impact. I now had tears running down my cheeks and was in shock. But imagine the plight of my two friends. They now had the knowledge of what was in store for them, and both started sobbing loudly, with anticipatory pain and fear. 

To this day, I distinctly remember that flash moment – it was the most unexpected turn of events in my young life, a shock like no other. Mr Singh, a sweetheart, had become a terrifying monster. I could not reconcile the two.

I would like to say that I was reformed after that event, though I did continue my share of capers and tomfoolery. But that one incident did sensitise me to respect my teachers and not betray their good affection.

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Blast from the Past

Nostalgically thinking of my 7 closest IIT hostel buddies during 1983-87 and BFFs since!

We had a Zoom Reunion last week as 4 of the 7 met up in Karjat at a place we had all gone to in 1985. We all wore T shirts, specially crafted for the reunion, courtesy of Sanjeev Paidhungat.

Zoom Reunion November 2021 – Amit, Sanjeev Paidee SV, Divakar Sawant, Alkesh Wadhwani, Uday Rao, Nelson R

The notation on the T-shirt is elucidated as below :
Hostel 8 A2L =
“A” Wing
2nd Floor
Lake View (Powai)

Specially crafted Uniform for Reunion
Four Memorable Events from circa 1985

The IIT campus is nestled between two lakes, the other one, Virar provides Greater Mumbai’s water supply via the pipelines on the iconic North South Tulsi Pipeline road. Denizens of the city are blissfully unaware of what transpires at the source of their drinking water. I shall let sleeping dogs lie!

But I digress.

The Magnificent Seven had come together in the first week of entering the Institute, by chance allotted to H8, even though we were to study different Engineering streams. A random Algorithm, probably not generated on the EC1030 (the Mainframe Computer), had inexorably linked our lives together.

Securing single rooms in A2L Wing in the second month of hostel-life was one of our early victories in IIT’s competitive environment. It was a privileged accommodation with a fabulous green view – a thicket through which we had glimpses of Powai Lake, even though it was vastly over-run by Weevils.

Our neighbouring Wing (A2R) offered a desultory Road View and while residents of “B” , “C” and “D” Wings would make hyperbolic claims about the advantages of their location, our vantage supremacy was widely acknowledged. While we used binoculars to study flora, fauna and a scenic vista from our windows, our friends in D Wing were notorious for using DIY peeping devices for their anthropological studies. The D Wing overlooked the abode of some married students (unsuspecting Post Graduates). I will not venture into a debate on who learned more about the birds and the bees!

In the first photo, I am being unceremoniously pushed off our 2nd Floor corridor ledge. I am perched precariously on an unseen tiny gargoyle, with the basketball court invitingly 30 feet below me! I cannot recall what specifically I did to trigger my mates to attempt such a violent attack, but such daily hostel activities were par for the course.

The boat featured in the second frame is at Wellington during a fortnight long South trip to Bangalore, Coonoor and Ooty in the summer of 84. Alkesh’s dad was Commandant of Navy Academy and we got to enjoy the hospitality as only the Services offer. To burn off the Old Monk Rum, we had, one afternoon, climbed Mt Dodabetta, the highest peak in the Nilgiris.

The James Bond photo is with our Wing car (registered in the name of Diwakar Sawant ). It sometimes ferried upto 20 students to class, those hostel mates late for the first lecture. At 827 am, it used to speed up the campus road, sometimes toppling struggling cyclists and pedestrians (the plebs) on our frantic scramble to class. After all, the driver, even if awake, had no space or view with boys squashed inside and outside, all over the vehicle!

The final frame reflects a celebration of Mood Indigo, the IITB cultural Festival (my main education in the 4 years, an initiation into all good things in life, including my then girlfriend Gauri Shrivastava Gupta)

Sweet memories!

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Sharing an in-class exercise from “Memoir Writing” : the prompt was to use excessive detail for a routine daily activity. The sample reading was a journalist’s account of a Federer Agassi point described in great detail. https://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/20/sports/playmagazine/20federer.html?auth=login-google1tap&login=google1tap

We were given 15 minutes to pen the essay, and had to include one reference to popular culture.  I used the song, “Morning has Broken” by Cat Stevens; my first and last lines are from the song. 

Whether I am in Menlo Park or at home in Singapore, this is one ritual that remains the same.

The Morning Cuppa

Morning has just broken. It is absolutely the best time of the day. Nowadays, I rarely hum Cat Stevens, but if I was to have a conversation with him, he would croon “ This one is for you, Amit”. I am often told that I do not multitask well, and am normally happy to not share my blissful solitude.

The kettle is filled with tap water and placed on the stove. At the same time, milk is taken from the refrigerator and a tiny amount poured into the white porcelain milk jug. I do this very carefully because the little piece of crockery has come from Gauri’s parental home, where it used to be part of her father’s tea set. The little porcelain cow had a befitting role in his elaborate ritual.

Did I mention that the amount of milk has to be exactly one horizontal finger high? As the petite jug goes into the microwave, the 30 seconds button is pressed twice and I dish the nuts out from the pantry. From four different packets, to be resealed carefully – walnuts, almonds and cashews, five of each and four Brazil nuts. No more, no less. There was that one time, before I was enlightened, when I had helped myself to a fistful of Brazil nuts. I did not know the existence of Selenium poisoning and the potency of a Brazil nut. It is a big one, but you would be nuts to believe that consuming eight of them could kill you. Well, I had lived to see another day but never again! As the nuts go into the glass bowl, my eye goes to the microwave timer. With 20 seconds to go, I open the oven door. The milk requires heating for 40 seconds, no more no less. The water in the kettle is about to beckon me with a shrill whistle, so I have to keep the tea cup ready. A big one embellished with “Papa’s : Do not take❤️!” In the cup, I dangle two teabags, one each of Yellow Label Black Tea, and Twining’s Darjeeling Tea. When properly brewed, the latter yields a thin-bodied, light-coloured infusion with a floral aroma. The Yellow label tea contrasts with its ‘wake-up’ ability. My brewing time is three minutes for the strength and four minutes for the flavour, the two working simultaneously.

The boiling water gets poured into the waiting teacup as my eye goes to the clock. It registers 5:56 AM. The milk can be poured into the cup at any stage now. The tray with the brewing cup, ‘Moo’ the little cow, the bowl of nuts and my IPad, is ready to be carried out. 

As I open the balcony door, the cuckoo bird tweets her morning greeting. And then hops and flies to a higher branch, to observe me from a safe distance. I pause to reflect on the strangeness of the hybrid moment – I am in California while the cuckoo is in Singapore. The tea bags come out and I am ready to take my first sip.

Mine is the sunlight, mine is the morning!

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An Unfamiliar Flashback !

Gauri cunningly circulated this photo on our family group chat on Father’s Day. I was so proud of our eldest daughter, the girl kneeling on the right. Except for her first cousin next to her, I did not recognise the other children. I was puzzled, so I looked closely at the faces. Now, our second daughter smiled back at me, instead of the eldest! But the age difference did not make sense. Seeds of doubt sown, questions began to pop like kernels in my addled brain: “Which of the two daughters is it? Why is only one of them in the photo? Who are the other kids? Why is the photo in black-and-white? Hang on, isn’t the girl in the centre not cousin Aparna, but her mother Radha, Gauri’s older sister? And if that is so, could that mystery girl on the right actually be Gauri? As a 10-year old!”

The power of genetic make up had me engulfed. I was truly lost in a maze of disorientation. It took several conversations and some time to convince myself that I had, as usual, been wrong on my first assessment. Gauri confirmed that it was indeed her as a ten year old, kneeling beside her sister. 

As is her wont, Gauri could recollect vivid details about the occasion, a family wedding held four decades ago. Zestful, she started off to tell me precisely what all she was up to that evening. I kept my interview rather clinical because I had a suspicion that her creative juices were starting to flow and had to be ebbed. Gauri has a fascination, actually more an obsession, for nostalgically reliving such celebrations. She has not attended many in the last three decades, since we have lived abroad after marriage, far from her parental home. Also, she is rather particular that she will not attend abridged festivities. It has to be the whole nine yards – a week of rituals and ceremonies with days mingling into nights – of singing and dancing traditional vernacular compositions, creatively curated for each occasion. A traditional Indian wedding is a complex and arduous event. Merely thinking about one makes my head swim. Gauri, on the other hand, has an impassioned penchant for them. She could pen an anthology on the subject. Given a chance, she can recount every dress worn, meal eaten, ceremony performed, conversation had and song sung frame by frame. 

But I digress. This specific gathering was for an uncle’s wedding reception in Gwalior, a small town in Central India. Gauri’s family, her parents, grandmother and sister had started from their home in Calcutta, travelled west across the country by an overnight train to Delhi to rendezvous with some other branches of the family tree . A larger, more festive group had then made another overnight locomotive journey south for this reception. 

Gauri’s eyes lit up as she reminisced on the clothes she wore. Her sister’s green and her own orange dress – the sharara – had been the latest fashion styles, and were debuted for the wedding. Haute couture was a rare indulgence for the sisters. It was their grandmother’s preserve, and over the preceding month, she had specially instructed the family darzee to come home and create the designs. I could picture Basheer Mia, hunched over his sewing machine in their backyard, under Dadi’s eagle eyes, with the tailor’s apprentice running errands and probably playing truant. The cloth was sourced from Dadi’s old silk saris and the ornamental buttons and old zari thread had special significance too. The twinkle in little Gauri’s eyes was just reward for the labour of love and craftsmanship. 

I dutifully complimented her on the fancy clothes and observed an uncharacteristic absence of ornaments on her neck. I was wistfully informed that the ornate necklace embellishing her sister had been a shared commodity. Gauri had been either outranked or bullied out of it for this customary photograph. She has since set off on a mission to trace and locate a bigger family photograph. She remains optimistic it may have been taken on a different day. I have not expressed my reservation at this implausible conjecture, and wish her the best in her futile endeavour. I was also sensitively silent (‘habitually unobservant’) and oblivious to the bracelet I spotted on Radha’s wrist. Let sleeping dogs lie!

The less said the better of the other children posing for the photograph. They are distant cousins, a dangerous territory for me to venture into, given that knowing their names would certainly not trigger in me any emotions. I will simply be accused of senility, even worse, of dereliction, since I would not be able to even recall how they are related to her. It did take a lot of effort for me to not quiz Gauri on the smart young gentleman behind her, who did a sterling job of extricating himself from the camera lens, though leaving behind half a watchful eye.

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Father’s Day Musings

This particular photograph resurfaced on Father’s Day and its significance should be rather self-evident. It is both light and heavy – so much so that my three daughters keep me grounded till today. The mirth and joy on their faces is reinvigorating and the photograph never fails to open a flood of warm and blissful memories from their childhood.

There is a backstory here. A keen observer may notice that I am wincing from the vigorous activity being performed on an injured back. But horses could not have dragged me away from the moment. The girls were customarily employed as a ‘wake-up alarm’ to stir me into action on a post-prandial moment on Sunday afternoons. The activity may have been contrary to medical advice, but you would get diametrically opposite diagnosis from an orthopaedic and a cardiovascular professional. 

I would be negligent if I did not pay tribute to the photographer who captured this gratifying moment, though her intentions were probably to garner evidence for a potential ‘I told you so’ reprimand in the near future. I was never found culpable.

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Louis Kahn Architecture IIM Ahmedabad

An Alumnus Perspective after 30 years

It is a salubrious spring morning with gorgeous blue North California skies, bright sunshine and a crisp 12 degrees Celsius. I take a deep yoga breath and imbue fresh oxygen and dollops of Vitamin D. I am standing on Palm Drive overlooking Stanford Oval, watching young men and women scurry in various directions. Some are headed towards their class in Jordan Hall, others rush to Cubberley Auditorium. Many precariously perched on bicycles and skateboards, zoom to Gates Building or the School of Medicine. Purposeful, brimming with youthful energy and completely oblivious to the ephemeral nature of the moment, without a foreboding clue of the looming shutdown. 

My memory flashes back 30 years to February 1990 as I walk up Stanford ramp at Vastrapur. To my college days at IIM Ahmedabad, to the times of yore, to the beautiful campus designed by American Architect Louis Isador Kahn.

The architecture both reflected and influenced the tastes of our times. It represented our temple of learning, unfinished yet concrete, antique yet modern – an icon of high stress, enigmatic yet aesthetic.

Looking back on it with rose tinted glasses, the ‘unfinished’ campus look was symbolic of young student lives being shaped in the two years we spent at IIM. Akin to an artist’s use of a kiln to harden ceramic objects and finish them into items of value (note I did not say beauty).

Back at the resplendent LKP for the 25th Reunion (December 2014)

Ancient civilisations like the Romans used rounded arches extensively to span large, open areas. As an innovative variation, Gothic architecture used pointed arches for taller, more closed spaces. The arches of Louis Kahn in the campus corridors represented long tunnels – symbolizing our escape as we burrowed for two years of our lives, unsure if we would ever make it through. Almost miraculously, each one of us did – hardened, standing tall and ready to take on the world!

For the engineering students, the geometric shaped buildings were familiar and welcoming. Harvard Steps and the Stanford ramp were apt symbols of higher education, an important gradient towards a life long successful career. 

But during the two years we spent at IIM, we had no such appreciation. More realistically, the brick walls in our dormitories were a furnace in the hot Ahmedabad weather for over 9 months of the year. That certainly served to intensify the academic pressure, so much so that the starkness of the architecture gave us plenty of ideas to bang our head against the wall in desperation and frustration. Nights seemed very short and often I would wake up perspiring profusely and hallucinating about the walls of my room closing in on me. On some days, the feeling was worse than being cloistered in a small prison cell. While we were there, we knew the architecture was distinctive but it did not appear particularly appealing.

For me, the only exceptions were the large lush green lawns where I played a lot of frisbee, the quaint and pretty mounds of grass around the dorms and the grandeur of Louis Kahn Plaza. The majestic convocation ceremony at the pristine LKP was certainly the denouement of our two years.

Three decades later, after a long and rewarding corporate career, I am privileged to be back to school to another great Institution – for renewing purpose and personal Renaissance.

Relishing the quest for knowledge, Second Innings at Stanford University
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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.

Faith

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.

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A Divine Intervention

This is a memory from 4 years ago which I have attempted to faithfully reproduce (pun unintended, this is a serious matter).

During this intense period of tribulation in my life, I received precious support and love from several of you – for which I will be eternally grateful.

I am not a religious person and do not believe that there is a God. Yet, I have met Him. Actually, it will be wrong for me to make both assertions.

It’s probably best I start my story at the very beginning.

1

My father was a devout worshiper of Hanuman and visited our small neighbourhood temple every week. I therefore have an association of Tuesdays with temples, but that was virtually the only ritual I remember being followed in our home. An extra sweet from the temple was the reason for me to join him, which I seldom did since he would in any case bring the temple laddoos home. 

The other religious childhood memory that is imprinted in my mind is of the one occasion when I, at age 10, had a high fever. We were on a car trip on vacation, and my father took a route diversion for me to take a dip in the Ganga, the Holy river. Normally, this was a treat for me as a young boy, but feeling feverishly cold that afternoon, I reluctantly approached the water. Miraculously, the immersion made my fever disappear and my father’s faith was vindicated. It is a story he narrated often.

I went on to study Engineering and developed pride in being of a strong scientific bent. When we studied the Big Bang creation of the Universe, I found it rather convenient that Cosmologists introduced the concept of Dark Energy in order to explain anomalies in observable phenomena. To justify mysterious occurrences, my own belief has been in the existence of some superior force. I have stated this emphatically on several occasions through life. So I simply do not know if there is a God. Essentially, I am an agnostic, not so much a non-believer.

2

My divine encounter took place nearly four years ago. Even though I have hazy memories of the adjacent time period,  I remember that night vividly since I spent many hours with not one, but several Gods.

It was at the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur at Montmartre in Paris. A light rain pitter-pattered outside the church. Sporadically, I could see a flash of lightning reflect against the high stained-glass windows illuminating alluring Biblical characters. Each time this happened, I found myself counting down from eight to anticipate the rumble of thunder. While the building was beautiful, the stone walls and floors made it cold and damp.

In the church, I was acting as a chaperone to a group of people huddled in a corner. I recognised them and maintained a reverential distance. The congregation was small and consisted of a woman in white along with three men. The lady was Mother Mary. One of the men was Jesus Christ and the other the prophet Mohammed. There shone a bright light behind the fourth person so I could not see his face. But to me, it was clear that it was Lord Ganesh, the Hindu elephant God. I bowed towards him with folded hands and under my breath whispered “Namaste”. I was in the midst of a Trinity from across religions, who seemed to be in a conference.

I could not hear their complete conversation, but heard Mary proclaim, softly but firmly, “I am the one who is really in charge”. There was a quiet nod of acceptance from Jesus, who was standing beside her. I realised she was addressing him and seemed oblivious to my presence. Meanwhile, Mohammed was bending over a bench and purposefully arranging some things inside his cloth bundle, and tying it together. Lord Ganesh seemed to be playfully engaged in some task with what looked to be clay, almost like playdough. All of them seemed harmonious and comfortable in a group, while doing their own thing. I was quiet, submissive and very observant, fully alert.

The building had giant wooden doors, which swung open noiselessly and with ease. The floor at the entrance was wet.  I was worried that the large marble slabs could be perilously slippery. From time to time, I would rush to mop the floor and squeeze the water into a metallic bucket, that made a clanging noise which would echo and disturb the peace of the Romano-Byzantine structure. 

At the doorway, a small crowd of eager gazers and onlookers was slowly but surely building up. The first few people were probably those seeking refuge from the inclement weather and others religiously followed them to the shelter. I felt responsible that I had to manage the situation in case it got out of hand. While the spectators were curious, they did not have the concrete knowledge that I did – that there were divine entities present that evening and I was the chosen one to look after them.

I took the initiative to go to the entrance and address the congregating observers to inform them that the church was closed at night-time. I politely asked them to depart since the storm had abated and they needed to venture back out.

I decided to be prudent and urged the divinities to move a bit inside the building. This somewhat shielded them from the front door by a big marble staircase, a double helical structure in the centre of the large hall. They gathered their meagre belongings as I guided them in a procession to the rear. Through the night, I remained active scurrying around the church, ready to serve and please as asked. I was brimming with a sense of excitement and importance. 

The ambience remained serene and peaceful so, after a few hours, I settled myself over some gunny sacks on the floor in a corner. The hard floor strangely felt cozy and comfortable. I guess I was exhausted and overwhelmed by all the activity. I closed my eyes.

3

A few hours later, light on my face woke me, in a strange place that felt, instantly, nothing like the church. I seemed to be reclining at an angle and as I opened my eyes, I saw my wife Gauri bending over me with a rather anxious look on her face. She put her hand gingerly on my face. She had tears streaming down her face, but she was also beaming.

 “What was going on?” I thought, very confused. 

I noticed a huge bandage on my head. I was in a hospital bed with lots of tubes and wires protruding from my body. There was a nurse by my side, checking my blood pressure. Another was adjusting a drip by my bedside, which suddenly made me feel very thirsty. To my shock, I realised that I could not sit up or even move. People in the room seemed to look at me strangely. 

I heard Gauri say to me “Thank God you’re back!” and thought I detected a tinge of anger in her tone.

“Why was she scolding me? Back from where?” As a maelstrom of thoughts swirled through my head, I heard her continue, this time in a more gentle voice. “You had a stroke and have been in a coma for a week… thank God you are back.”

Stunned and in a very weak voice, I attempted to whisper “Yes, I met God”. 

As I tried to continue to speak, I realised that I was not coherent. I could not feel anything on the right side of my face and my speech was slurred. But I wanted to tell her everything about my encounter. Gauri knew that I never had any innate desire to meet God. She would help me understand why they came to me.

For the next half hour, with a combination of charades and staccato speech, I endeavored to narrate the events of the previous night, but without much success. I was frustrated by my inability to be expressive and articulate.

4

I could recall the migraine on that fateful Sunday afternoon a week ago, when I had my stroke. We had attributed the nausea to an unusually early and heavy dinner of mutton curry. By 8 pm, I had begun to vomit and thought I had ejected the problem from the system, so it would be fine. But the headache had got worse. My last memory was of me lying down in my bed at home, sweating and writhing in discomfort.

My monthly chemotherapy cycles, as part of my treatment for Lymphoma, had been ongoing for 5 months. That Sunday, I had been preparing for my penultimate cycle to begin the next morning. Mutton was an essential part of my protein-rich diet in the week before each cycle. After all, I needed to build reserves of strength before another onslaught of the drugs infusion battered my body. I liked to call it ‘fattening the lamb before the slaughter’. Given how sick I frequently had felt since chemotherapy started, we didn’t think the headache was unusual. But this time was different. 

Gauri narrated her dreadful memory on how the worsening headache had led me to black-out and collapse on our bedroom floor at around 10 pm. She happened to have been on the telephone with the oncologist at that moment to update him, and immediately dialed for an ambulance. I can only wonder how they carried me two floors down our bungalow staircase, to rush me to the National University Hospital (NUH), nearest to our residence, as per protocol. A 6 hour long brain surgery followed, which saved my life. It was a week later when I uttered my first words, about meeting God.

5

For the next three weeks, I remained in ICU. I was very weak, with low blood counts, since the stroke had virtually destroyed my immunity and body functions, already enfeebled by chemotherapy. In these weeks, hospital nurses were so much a part of my life, and their white uniform gave me flashbacks of my meeting with Mother Mary. 

I underwent daily physiotherapy, speech therapy, visits from neurosurgeons, my oncologist and a host of other medical professionals, who were all very caring, concerned and professional. Gradually, my ingestion improved from liquid to semi-solid food, I gained some strength and was moved out of ICU into a regular hospital room. 

Gauri knew I was eager to communicate and share my divine encounter with her in detail. I had made several unsuccessful attempts, but it was only when I got out of ICU that I was coherent enough to tell her my story of the night in Montmartre. While I was muddled, I estimated that my rendezvous had most likely happened on the night of my brain surgery.

As we talked, Gauri helped with several insightful observations. The first time I had tried to narrate the story, I had been incoherent but repeatedly named Ganpathy for Lord Ganesh and also ‘Rasool’ to refer to Prophet Mohammed. She insisted then, as she does today, that I was unaware that ‘Rasool’ was the Prophet’s name. It is a rarely used reference for Him, though it may be common knowledge to practicing devout Muslims and Islamic scholars.

She also noted that the one time I had been at Montmartre was in 2010, on a family vacation during Easter school holidays. The weather then had indeed been cold and rainy. She recalled that we had spent several hours that Easter Sunday morning touring the Basilica, that I had been insistent we return to the site after sunset, so we had our dinner in the neighbourhood. My detailed description of the church was faithfully reproduced from that memory.

The several weeks spent in hospital remains a blur. Several close friends and family visited me. While I did have long, animated and hearty conversations, they later observed that I would quickly forget these interactions and greet returning visitors afresh to repeat earlier conversations. They were patient with me but I must have been a real bore.

6

The vision of that fateful night remains crystal clear in my mind even today, four years later. It’s not that I have repeated the story several times. Besides telling Gauri in great detail, I have narrated this momentous episode briefly to my mother and to one of our three daughters. This has not been a deliberate act, but I have, for some reason, refrained from talking about it. In the past, I was aware of people sharing their out-of-body experiences and used to be quite disbelieving, almost dismissive of these stories. But now that I have myself been ‘to the other side’, I am rather bemused and often mull over my experience. I did not ever think that such a divine encounter would happen to me. But neither did I ever believe that I would be diagnosed with cancer, to be followed shortly by an aneurysm induced paralytic stroke. 

With these recent experiences, it is easy to reflect on the vicissitudes of life. Dark energy may indeed be playing a powerful mysterious role to control observable events , and we do encounter the Superior Force in the shape and form of familiar persona. The question comes back to haunt me periodically: “Did I have a meeting with the Creator or had my addled brain created the meeting?!”  I guess I will never know the answer for sure, but I don’t really care. I feel blessed just to be around.

7

In a month, I was allowed to leave the hospital for home in a wheelchair. As I slid into our car seat, my eyes went to the dashboard where Lord Ganpathy sat cross-legged, as protector of our family. The Elephant God, Ganpathy, can be found in several Hindu homes and symbolises safeguarding us from life’s obstacles. My wife has always kept a large collection of small statues of Ganesh, as he is fondly called, at home. Every car we have owned over thirty years has had Ganesh majestically adorning its dashboard.

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A Family Secret

Sharing below a recent class assignment with the following prompt “Write about a secret, lie or mystery related to a person or place you know well (500-600 words).”

I could well have penned something related to most of you, my dear readers, but decided to be discreet and keep it about the immediate family – it’s a memory from 2016.

It was the first time we had concealed anything of significance from our daughters. Our family is closely knit and Gauri and I have been proud of the mature and open relationships we have fostered over the years as our little twin babies became adults. But that summer, it was to change.

It was the month of May, fast approaching a time of joy as the twins were to return to our empty nest from University for their first summer. Excitement was in the air and the house was being cleaned in preparation. Meg’s roommate at college, Elizabeth, was accompanying her to be our guest for a couple of weeks. Elizabeth was from Nashville, it was her first overseas flight and she had got her new Passport issued for this trip. They were flying in from LAX to Singapore on Saturday along with the twin sister, Maddie. 

In Singapore, I vividly remember that Friday afternoon in the doctor’s office. Dr Lim stood beside me and I heard his voice though did not fully digest the import of his words. Gauri and I were definitely in a daze. He put his hand firmly and supportively on my shoulder and gently said, “ Young man, you are taking the news bravely”. He had misread my emotions! I was reeling from the shock of his announcement – “The MRI and other test results clearly point to an advanced stage of Lymphoma.”

In a couple of hours, Gauri and I were evaluating and discussing immediate treatment which involved a combination of steroids and chemotherapy. Waiting in the Oncologist’s Reception, we tried to collect our thoughts, our lives overtaken by the whirlwind and a raging storm! We looked at each other with similar thoughts swirling in our heads “What do we tell the girls? They will be here in 48 hours. We cannot wipe the smiles from their faces.”

On early Monday morning, when we received the three girls at Changi Airport, they were chirping like little birds excited to be home, to introduce Elizabeth to us and show her their home city. They did not seem to notice the slightly tense, somewhat subdued welcome but did realize that I was not loading the bags in the car and that their mother took the driver’s seat. They showed quick concern over my “low viral fever” and lovingly threatened to exclude me from the fun time ahead unless I recovered immediately! Gauri and I glanced at each other, our hearts sinking but smiles affixed on our faces.

The next few days, Gauri and I would slip out of home to go to the hospital for more scans and treatment at the clinic. Ostensibly, we were going out for meetings and were trying to finish work while the girls recovered from their jet lag. It was a period through which I was constantly racked with guilt, as one lie led to another. I could not fulfil the promises to take the family for meals to our favorite joints, but encouraged the girls to go out and have a good time. Doubts were constantly gnawing at my soul with the sinking feeling that we were deceiving our loved ones, and would be exposed at some stage.

In blissful oblivion, the girls had a fun few weeks. The day after Elizabeth left for her home, the side-effects of my chemotherapy caused me to be admitted to the ER, and our secret tumbled out!

The twins at their High School Graduation (2015)