Visual fame, as being recognized on sight, is something that has long fascinated me; not so much to be that person but to understand the chemistry and mechanics of it.
I am not talking only about the Amitabh Bachchan kind of raging fame that never seems to dim and carries a massive force field around it all the time. I am also talking about semi-moderate to moderate kind of fame that many others among us have experienced. I mean the TV anchor or TV pundit kind of fame which is incidental to the profession and not integral to it. Also, it is not really earned but grudgingly granted.
Speaking of incidental fame, this morning as I waited for my luggage at the Mumbai airport after arriving from Ahmedabad, something mildly amusing happened. A ground staff member of Go Air, by which I traveled, looked at me with a passing degree of familiarity first. Out of sheer politeness I smiled at him, thinking it was in the nature of his job to greet passengers fidgeting near the conveyor belt.
After about a minute he approached me with a peculiar combination of diffidence and obsequiousness that famous people are known to cause among those who are not famous. “Sir, I have seen you on TV many times and…” he said and trailed off expecting me to complete his sentence. I had to swiftly formulate my response and weigh it so as not to ruin his sense of accomplishment at having spotted a famous person. That is much harder than what you might think.
Here is a total stranger who has invested in my fame and celebrity in such a way that not to be the person he thinks I am could scar him for life. (Literary exaggeration). At the same time though he does not quite know who I really am but suspects I am someone he has seen on TV “many times.”
Before I tell you what I told him, here is a simple fact. I have never been on TV, certainly not in the way the young man thought of me. I have never been on Indian TV. I am not even remotely famous. (Zero modesty here). I have zero visual fame. (Bare fact). It is possible that I look like someone he sees on TV regularly although I am not sure why someone who looks like me would be on TV. (Labored self-deprecation). So please weigh my response against this backdrop.
After about five seconds all that I could tell him was, “Well, I don’t live here but it is nice meeting you.” Both those parts are 100 percent accurate and put together they saved me the unpleasantness of disappointing a perfectly nice young stranger. As I shook hands with him, I am not sure whether he thought my response had vindicated his vague feeling that he had seen me many times on TV or that he was grateful at having been saved the awkwardness of discovering that I was not who he thought I was.
The question that has remained in my mind is whether I should have ended his misconception right there or I should have played along in order that he had a reward, a very inconsequential one but a reward nevertheless, on his otherwise boring job. I do not know the answer to it. What I do know is that fame, even as mild and uncertain as the kind I experienced for about a nanosecond, has that natural adhesive that sticks to you long after life has come unstuck.