Sunday, June 03, 2007

An Encounter with Faces

A Beautifully normal day, post sleep hangover just oozing out of the system, breath smells of fresh mint due to my new “minty fresh cooling crystals” embedded in my toothpaste (Which by the way costs 15% more than the regular bone powdered white toothpaste, smells 80% better, tastes 50% better & does the exact same thing). Now what an awkward moment to have this thought on your mind & suddenly your favourite track playing in the back of your head. In that morning math, that tune made me follow it with the tooth brush still in my cheek which made it sound like a rat doing a doggie style.

On the verge of reaching my morning tea, I came across a person standing right outside my window. If I wasn’t mistaken, she was the lady living right across my building’s fence in the building on the opposite side. She was looking a little more curious than she was supposed to be, inspecting her own potted plants in her balcony, which were leaving drip marks all over the building’s wall. Now I don’t know, if anybody complained about those marks to her, or she was just curious enough to stand there at 8 in the morning. I realized that if I was standing there, instead of her, I would have taken a few pictures of the drip marks, fiddle with them on Photoshop & then print & sell the damn thing as modern art. Hell, would have even started a new art phenomenon called, say, “dripism”.

But that wasn’t the reason I was looking at her, neither was the reason that she has reasonably good hair, but because I felt her face was too familiar to ignore. We had bumped into each other in the past 21 years at least a couple of times, but we hadn’t had any other sort of contact. Then why would her face seem familiar. Was it the lack of tea in my system or was it time for some therapy? Microseconds after this thought, my hand holding the tea mug instinctively put the mug on my lips & the steamy aroma of the tea gave some clarity. A week ago I was walking past my school to someplace. I bumped into a distant friend & we stood there talking to each other for old time’s sake. I don’t know how my brain even registered this, but she was buying mangoes from a fruit seller who was right across the street from us. I remembered vaguely seeing someone familiar, but I didn’t bother to give it a thought at that moment. Imagine how the moment found me.

The first sip of tea is always the most reflective. The warm liquid touches the tip of your upper lip signalling your tongue that something really hot is coming your way, better brace yourself. The tongue being an obedient pink little thing, just salivates the whole damn place. Then the tea makes an entry, like a movie star on a red carpet during an awards function. The taste buds are on overdrive, they realize that this is someone really important. They deserve this moment. After all living in my mouth for a whole night without a midnight snack, can be very lonely for some. Now comes the chemistry part, which, if I had paid a little more attention during school, I just might have been able to explain it now a little more elaborately. So the liquid reaches the back of the tongue, meanwhile the nose is feeling really good for the extra special attention given to it by the aromatic steam leaving my mug. Then the neurons really get excited. They feel happy to be neurons, who have just received a motivational speech from papa neurons about their role in life & their moral duties & what not.

Anyway, seconds after that reflective first sip from my mug, my mind started wandering in directions thinking, how many faces can we remember if we see them for the first time? If we see someone for the second time on the street, does the brain respond in a different way? Does the brain associate ratings to people’s faces on the basis of remember-worthy & seriously unworthy (I know I have seen a few of those, my professors for instance, I wouldn’t want to be seen by their faces on a street).

That day I left my house (let me be clear, I left after a fresh shower & a shave so that if some brain chose to remember my face, I better be good looking, not that it helped in someway, but still) with a new agenda printed on my forehead. Hunt down the familiar faces & basically lets see how well you can observe. I had reasons to believe that this must be one of the basic exercises they make wannabe spies perform. Spies or, for the lack of a better word, secret agents, must be definitely good at remembering faces & storing that info objectively by just assessing facial expressions. If they can do it, then it must be a pretty basic function of the brain, since all these spy programs do is to enhance the body’s basic senses to make them register stimuli more effectively, efficiently & faster than normal. OK, so I now had a plan to see if I can do the exact same thing without any motive or formal training. In better words, I was just out there testing my brain’s facial recognition software. Pretty funky thing to do on a sultry morning.

Just meters away from my building’s main gate, I spotted a shopkeeper just opening up his joint. I instantly recognised him, since I was used to see him almost everyday at his shop. OK, so the system was up & running. Now came the difficult part, I suddenly realized that what would be better than going to a railway station & looking at people to see if we can spot a few one timers or two timers. Reaching platform # 3, presented a daunting task. Too many people on the platform anxiously waiting for their train, I thought that I have to do just one stupid thing out here to offend at least one guy on this platform & even I won’t remember my face that evening.

I found an empty bench & I stationed myself on it like an observation booth for the police or traffic mamu. First scan wasn’t pretty eventful as I expected, all I could register was partial images, like someone’s eyes, someone else’s hair, etc. The second scan was a bit more thorough. I noticed a few faces carefully & tried to deliberately register them. Third scan saw the train coming & saw how each one of those faces reacted at being a part of the mob trying to get on the train. I did the drill again & again to see how many faces I can recollect from this crowd. The odds of finding at least one familiar face were remarkably high. On my nth scan my eyes froze at a figure approaching me & the edges of my lips automatically moved north. I distinctly remembered not having notice the face of that approaching figure yet, but still somehow my brain had notified me that I know that silhouette. The figure approached closer & the smile turned to a grin of recognition. There she was, my first crush standing right in front of me & all I could manage to think about was, how my brain had managed to identify or associate body language with remembering a person? That was just about to shatter all my early morning convictions of remembering faces. She said “hi” & I actually had to make an effort to stop grinning & reply. Now came the most awkward part, “where are you going?” I obviously wasn’t. In that moment of sudden encounter with someone who was special some 12 years ago, I managed to cleverly reply, “No where, I was just looking at people”. Yes, since you’ve been gone, I have started stalking for a living now. That made her giggle & I sighed at the fact that she still can’t figure out the difference between reality & humour (reality can be very funny sometimes, I noticed).

After the usual talk, my mind set to two tasks, reach home as quickly as possible to avoid further embarrassing encounters before someone took me for a people watcher & figure out how body language affects our brain’s ability to recognise people.

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