April 23, 2007

Brief Encounters of the Third Kind

Brief encounter of the first kind. Fictional, Moscow, circa 1925.

Love at first sight. The short, anonymous, meeting that led Kira Argounova into falling head over heels for Leo Kovalensky. The kind that is described in Ayn Rand's best, and the only novel if you asked me, We the Living. In an earlier post, I wrote of this encounter:

Every once in a while, a sublime meets a trivial, amongst the other trivia, in a dark street. In that fleeting moment, after a quick exchange of glances, a few words spoken that meant nothing to the voices that spoke them, a fluttering of the butterfly, and the sublime, embracing the trivial passionately, plunges into an abyss that we call love.

Sex pheromones exciting a million amorous neurons, yet to be identified by the neuroscientists?

Brief encounter of the second kind. Howrah station, circa 1970.

I felt the pain and the suffering of a hungry, ragtag child who couldn't have been more than five years old. Instantly. As she picked up a clay pot thrown away from the moving train, and licked off whatever that was left of the mishti dhoi that someone had just eaten. She then stood there, dangerously close to the railroad tracks, staring at me with her wide eyes. They locked briefly with mine, bore deep into my psyche, and tugged a million mirror neurons, all at once. I never forgot those eyes. They haunt me in my dreams even today.


What I am about to describe in this post are brief encounters of the third kind. There is no sex or sympathy involved in these. Probably no pheromones, and no mirror neurons. Almost certainly, not the ones that participate in the the first two kinds.

An off campus singles bar, Rochester, NY, circa 1972.

It was a cold night, but the bar was warm and cozy, with all the heat from the huddled mass of college students. I was at a table with my friends, drinking beer and discussing Nixon's bombing of Hanoi, when I caught her eye from across the table next to us. She was quite attractive. After a few more passionate denouncements of Nixon, I grew tired of it, and decided to move to the next table — for obvious reasons. Sensing my motives, a friend of mine cautioned me, "Watch out. She seems to have a date." I shrugged my shoulders and walked across to her table.

Noticing an empty seat, I asked no one in particular, "May I?" "Yes, of course", replied a couple of voices, neither of them from the girl-next-table. I hit it off immediately with the guy next to her, though. It did not matter that he turned out to be the girl-next-table's date for the night out. We started with some idle banter about the naivety of the disciples of Indian gurus, the origin of pot from among the ascetics of the Himalayas, the peccadillos at my alma mater, the Marxist Institute of Management... Then, bad jokes, good jokes, wisecracks, not-so-wisecracks... Did they really tumble out of me? Must have been buried deep under the layers of depressing, existential dilemmas that I had faced till then. I ordered a beer, then another, and then another. We had no sense of time passing. It was like a sit down comedy show between the two of us. I barely noticed the girl next to him, and neither did he! When we were done, it was 3 a.m. I never met the guy again, nor did I get his name. For years, those six hours would be the most riotous time that I've ever had.

Party at the Iyers' residence, Eden Prairie, MN, circa 1996.

She was newly wed, and about to move to Boston with her husband. Too young, I thought, to be interested in my favorite whipping boys — politics and religion. Wrong. I was well known in the local circles as the king of cynics, but she battled bravely to win the crown for herself. And, I enjoyed every moment of the battle. From Clinton to Levinsky, from abortion to atheism, and from motherhood to apple pie, she was a worthy match for my subtle and not so subtle barbs and gibes. Asatya Sai Baba, no problem. Immorality of the youth — of course, it's an immortal complaint of all mortals! If god were so omnipotent, why did he need to rest on the seventh day? Two eyes for an eye could save your other eye! We broke all the party rules. Didn't circulate among the guests. Didn't offer to help the host in setting the table. Didn't pay any attention to the Pictionary game in progress. It was just us, one on one, for the entire four hours. She left for Boston the next week, and I never heard of her again.

What makes these brief encounters of the third kind so memorable? Is it a manifestation of the quantum coherence in the microtubules of the neurons, that Roger Penrose talks about in his Shadows of the Mind? Only that in this case it is across two brains? Or are there specialized pheromones that evoke matching responses - humor for humor, cynicism for cynicism? Only that the responsive behavior is isolated in space and time? Will I enjoy today a second encounter with the girl-next-table's date, as much as I did in 1972? Will my lunges and parries with Ms. Cynic be as exhilarating at the party hosted by the Patels in 2007?

Care to share any of your brief encounters of the third kind?

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