Her lips moved soundlessly as her fingers made patterns in the air. She was seated at the adjoining table, quite a striking woman. She had been staring at me for a while. Not one to shirk curiosity – and not particularly concerned about whether she was looking at possibly smudged lip-gloss or a tear in the sleeve or a shirt worn the wrong side – I returned the stare for a bit. Just enough for me to notice her eyelashes curving thickly with the weight of mascara and her mouth stained with the colour of a doused flame. Her skin would have appeared paler had it not been for this shade.

At some point when she started moving her lips and gesticulating, my hand turned into a query and my lips parted quite unsure of the sound that might seem appropriate. Quite suddenly, she got up and walked in my direction, almost ready to embrace. I turned towards her, my body language conveying that I was not antagonistic. She extended her hand, palm facing up. I stood up and gave her my palm; hers was clammy. She took a few seconds waiting for a more genial response, and then it struck her. “I am so sorry. Really very very sorry. You are not who I thought you were.”

It was a case of simple mistaken identity. I resembled someone she knew. We shook hands, her palm now dry of sweat. Why was it clammy at all if she thought I was someone she knew? Did that someone cause such a reaction in her and, if so, why? She appeared to be a confident woman, confident enough to get up and approach me, apologise for the error. She also said, “That is why I was staring at you.”

Besides reassuring me that my lip-gloss was not smudged, my sleeves had not torn, my blouse was worn the right side – although I must confess I need to see the label to figure out back from front often, especially in the non-button type blouses – this little encounter was an interesting study in human behavior. It wasn’t about who we are but who we seem to be.

Just think of a comment like, “You are not who I thought you were.” How often do we take it as an indictment of us, when it really is about the erroneous perception of others? The argument can be flipped to, “I thought you were who you are not.” Here the onus seems to be on the observer. Since the observer can be the observed, is the perception as strong? In this particular instance, since I did not think she was anyone except an individual who was observing me, I perceived her partially as a judge and in that I gave her some degree of control. One might conjecture that control is not given, for then it ceases to be control.

After the handshake, she nodded and smiled at me a couple of times. As I walked out, she did not even look my way.

There are several notions about control, but here the mere fact of my being an observed entity made me mouldable. To her, I existed as a peripheral occupier of the adjoining table after her idea of me had served its purpose. One can say it was my 15 minutes of recognition or cognisance.

Mistaken identities are about lost identities in some ways.

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