Let it Flow

Last week I found myself reading Pascal Richet’s A Natural History of Time-a book I’ve been carrying around since December. Richet is interested (I am interested) in how the study of nature has shaped perceptions of time and of durations of time from antiquity to the present. I’ve been thinking about cycles and linear trajectories, eternity and beginnings, chronology and history, hours and days and months and years; Aristotle, the Book of Moses, Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo; and the emergence of geological durations, the rise of physics and astrophysics, and the discovery of isotopes and radiometrics.

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At the same time we are once again complaining about Indians and their sense of time. Of course complaining that Indians are chronically late is merely to express, as many have pointed out, a culturally-determined concept of time. In the US we waste time, buy time, save hours and minutes, invest time, run out of time, put aside time, thank people for their time and, of course, we all live on borrowed time. It is simply rude to waste my time. Every moment matters-or so we like to say.

We schedule our time with calendars and day books. We obsess about having more time. Creatures of modern life, we live the faster pace determined by people living the quick in vibrant city ecologies organized around the economics of efficiency. That is, we consider our time as currency that we have the right to own and to use as we see fit. To be late is a waste. It is antisocial. It is positively un-American. Unabashed individualists, we value individual achievement over interpersonal affiliation. Progress and success predicated on promptness and punctuality. “Push the River,” as the singer Ann Reed puts it.

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Our complaints about Indians being late may then say more about us-about our individualistic concept of punctuality struggling to find a place in a culture that values relationships over the individual,  a culture where people live multiple lives (why hurry?). Indeed, is it not pernicious to demand that people in a developing country conform to the standards of a post-industrial information economy? How can people be on time when there are no reliable roads or transportation? Why should we demand that our Indian friends focus less on relationships and more on the individual?  And so on.

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Still, our work in colleges and universities in India has been complicated (and at times compromised) by the laissez-faire approach to time. To take just a few examples: functions at the university and college predictably start late; students arrive for a morning class scheduled at nine between nine fifteen and nine thirty; a lecture scheduled for ten begins at eleven; a multi-day conference schedule is at least one session behind at the end of the first day; public events have more elaborate protocols, including taking tea, recognizing distinguished guests, felicitations on the dais, and so on; and scheduled meetings are regularly put off, delayed, or do not happen at all. Finally, there are multiple layers of actors in any task that needs to be done. Hierarchies of Indian society are magnified in an institutional context, where getting a cup of tea, a photocopy, or change for a five hundred rupee note will often require an extended wait as one person gets another person to get another person to do the job. It is all, as we like to say, terribly inefficient and a regrettable waste of time.

Among the many explanations for Indian stretchable time are dwelling in the present as opposed to looking ahead to the future; valuing social relationships as opposed to individual achievement; cultivating relationships and trust over getting to the start of a meeting on time, for example taking tea and letting all else fall away; maintaining flexible instead of rigid timelines; adhering to a cyclical rather than a linear sense of time; looking at and acting in social interactions more holistically instead of viewing such interactions through separate (and often conflicting) time frames or personal schedules; feeling reluctant to say no, out of politeness, or even to saying yes when in fact a maybe or a no might be called for; or correlating climate and tempo of life. There is the tradition of taking it easy instead of getting stressed, the yogic way, I guess; an emphasis on deliberation and making decisions more slowly as opposed to rushing impatiently to meet what is most often an arbitrary deadline. And there is the expectation, in a society organized vertically around class and caste, that the more important the person is who you are meeting with the longer you may have to wait.

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Yet when I began thinking about time this morning and listed all the explanations for Indian stretchable time I thought about the dabbawalas in Mumbai who collect and deliver lunches from homes and deliver them to workers. “The Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Association” is notoriously efficient and always on time. They have been doing their work, on time, for over one hundred years, in one of the most crowded and unpredictable urban spaces in the world. They get you your lunch on time every day using trains, bicycles, and walking, and they get your tiffin back home by early evening. The dabbawalas raise interesting questions about Indian culture, the relative concept of time, and the relationship between tradition and habit. Their reminder might also lead to a deeper consideration how concepts of time differ across Indian sub-cultures such as Sikhs, Parsis, Muslims and Hindus.

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The Hindi and Urdu word kal provides one indication of the looser notion of time in India. Kal can be used to refer to both past and future, yesterday and tomorrow. Such flexibility has its merits. I’ve heard people say that we might live longer were we to give up rushing about and spending time making excuses for why we’re late. After all, “slow is spelled with four letters-so is life,” reads an Indian saying, and “speed is spelled with five letters-so is death.” In the end, there is something worth having in each concept of time and the cultures that are organized around them. I’m left thinking that perhaps there is a via media-a recognition of one’s own way of thinking about time and a willingness to work toward the better parts of each.

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