With a large coffee mug by her elbow, M. sat at her desk, scanned the day’s headlines on the New York Times.
Sometimes, she reads aloud. That day, she told me about the killing of a dozen people by a Taliban suicide car bomber, near the Indian embassy in Kabul.
I headed over to the paper next, and began reading about it somberly. When I came to a paragraph that had quoted India’s foreign secretary, I blurted out: “Oh, I didn’t know that Nirupama Rao was now the foreign secretary!”
“Who?” M. asked, in a vague sort of way, as though she hadn’t heard me, but didn’t want to admit it. She was trying to alert me to a human tragedy, and what I was doing? Honing in on the name of a senior government official?
What was, to her, perhaps a scrap of insipid detail, was to me, the center of the story. “Oh, she’s India’s foreign secretary … you know, Nirupama Rao,” I said, muttering more to myself than in response to her.
By then, a trace of a smile had broken on my lips, even though my eyes were still adjusting to the day’s bright orange-yellow sunlight from a night’s gray sleep. But my neurons had already fired up. The grim development had already melted into my mind’s backyard. All that materialized was the name: “Nirupama Rao.”
Rao is no celebrity, of course, in the sense that Oprah Winfrey, Bill Clinton, Jennifer Aniston, and Lady Gaga are. She’s India’s top diplomat. She’s also India’s second woman foreign secretary, the first being Chokila Iyer (my father’s batch mate in the Indian federal government.)
Around the late 1990s, as spokesperson for the Ministry of External Affairs, she was a familiar face on India’s television TV channels. I remember her as a well-spoken, articulate, and suave woman. Coming across her name in the paper today, stirred old memories and dormant crushes.
There is, however, an explanation for the way I reacted. A recent study, reported in the Wall Street Journal, (“A Neuron’s Obsession Hints at Biology of Thought”) shows that our neurons respond selectively. They’re partial to some names, and indifferent to others.
As part of several experiments conducted on the human brain since 2005, it was found that out of the 100 billion brain cells, one neuron will react to only one stimulus. Rao could be that stimulus to my neurons.