India’s sense of time
Three Bidis Away

Indians have a skewed sense of time. They’re perpetually late, even to their own parties. Photo (detail): Icons8 Team © Unsplash

How we measure time determines who we are as a society, but perhaps it is an illusion, a Western conceit, that time can and should be controlled.

Saskya Jain

It’s a few minutes past eight o’clock on a chilly Friday evening in Delhi. Traffic was benign today, and the drive was shorter than expected. My husband — also a writer but from Germany, with what must be a genetically unshakeable predisposition for punctuality — suggests that we exit the freezing car we’re sitting in to ring the doorbell at the house where we’re invited for a dinner party that evening. I demur and point out that it’s just after eight. “Exactly,” he rebuts, “so we’re already late.” The invitation was for eight. “No, we’re early,” I insist. “An hour early. At least.”

Brown hand, white hand

We have had this conversation many times. All Indo-European couples in Delhi have had this conversation many times. There should be an emoticon for it. It would show one brown hand and one white hand on a clock face rolling its eyes.

Fast-forward a few years and my husband is no longer baffled to see our dinner party host open the door with nothing but a towel wrapped around his waist when we show up at eight o’clock on the dot (because we’re still that couple). My husband no longer assumes that we got the wrong day, or that he missed the text announcing this as a toga party. These days, my husband will hug our host, who is no longer surprised or offended to see us at this ungodly hour, and we will pour ourselves a drink until other guests start arriving, which is when our host will also eventually reemerge. By nine thirty, the room will be abuzz with conversation, laughter, and the occasional heated argument, dinner will be served just before midnight, and after eating we’ll all leave.

Indians have a skewed sense of time. They’re perpetually late, even to their own parties.

If your hand on the above-mentioned emoticon is not the brown one, you’re thinking: Indians have a skewed sense of time. They’re perpetually late, even to their own parties, exposing an unsavoury lack of respect for their fellow citizens. They’re unreliable when it comes to appointments of all kinds, whether they’re professional, romantic, or indeed existential in nature (I was born two weeks after my due date). You might use the word flaky.

If your hand is the brown one, you’re shaking your head, trying to frame your thoughts into similarly neat parcels of reasoning. This is what you come up with: what goras don’t understand is that time is not simply a measure of the earth’s rotation and orbit in manageable units to help us structure our daily lives. It is a necessary and pliable tool to stay in control in a society (and, if we’re being honest, an entire universe) where so much is beyond our control.

Controlling life

Yes, there’s an obvious paradox here: I’m saying that our — let’s say, flexible — approach to time is a way of asserting a definite sense of control over the fact that we have no control. In other words: while Germans are definitely more skilled and willing than Indians in terms of controlling whatever elements of life can be controlled, Indians, one might say, have collectively developed a kind of spiritual immunity to the constraints of time in order to cope with the fact that life in India at any given time is less controllable than in Germany — and if it isn’t, it’s only because inappropriate amounts of money and/or cheap labour are involved, such as using Bangalore’s helicopter taxis to beat the traffic or having nannies to ferry your toddlers around town in air-conditioned SUVs.

In this scenario, punctuality — both as its promoter and at its receiving end — is first of all a luxury in a setting where you don’t have to deal with chronically unreliable governance, underpaid labour, overpriced goods, nagging in-laws, unjust policy, power cuts, bribery, crushing traffic, the haphazard implementation of laws, the heat and dust of most months, poor sanitation, toxic air, unclean food, lack of public spaces, scarcity of water, etcetera, in order to function with some degree of security and dignity.

India’s national pastime

Secondly and unfortunately, time thus becomes a handy tool for those inclined to reassert their sense of power and dominance over others at any cost. Whether it’s the VIP showing up hours late for the opening ceremony, the baraat who appears at the bride’s venue when most guests are already drunk and considering divorce, or the IAS (Indian Administrative Service) officer who makes sure you have thoroughly convinced yourself of the pointlessness of life before he finally lets you into his hallowed chamber — making the other party (usually further down in the pecking order) wait is our national pastime. Once, after standing in line at the post office for over an hour with just a handful of customers before me, I heard one postal worker shout to his new colleague in Hindi, making sure all of us frustrated, increasingly murderous suckers would hear: “Don't you try showing too much efficiency. You’ll make me look bad.”

Three bidis

How we measure time determines who we are as a society but perhaps it is an illusion, a Western conceit, that time can and should be controlled. Who is happier — the commuter who hates surprises and is infuriated by a train running two minutes late or the suppliant who knows that life is pointless but that you must keep going anyway?

Some years ago, I met an old man in Palitana. I was trying to find my way back to the guesthouse from the temples and asked him how far I was from my destination. He thought about it for a moment and then said, “Three bidis away.” We would do well to remember that in this universe, our hold over time is always three bidis away.

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