“The Dubious Charm of Timelessness” (“The Statesman”)

At the time of the chime…
…The Dubious Charm Of Timelessness

By Martin Kämpchen

The Statesman (Kolkata) 15 September 2012 (Editorial)
WHEN a train arrives half an hour late, people say that it has arrived “still in time”. When a friend has not arrived because he forgot (because he was not reminded), we just say, “oh, he forgot”, and that is enough for an excuse. When a friend phones while we are in the middle of our work with other people, we still talk to him. There is a fluidity of life in our country which is charming, often even inspirational. Look at farmers in our villages who need no watch because they have the sun for a guide through the day. Its position is enough for them to know the time. Roughly, but that is enough. They rise with the rays of the sun and go to sleep with the fall of night. What is more natural? Daylight is for work; darkness for sleep, for re-creation. The perception of the passage of time is not mathematical, not by the minutes and hours, but by the importance of one’s actions. Eating, for example, is “intensive time”, so is tilling the fields. Important seems to be the organic flow of togetherness, like a swarm of fish in a lake which demonstrate a mysterious one-mindedness when it meanders elegantly through the water.


This sounds almost like paradise, where we were all childlike and innocent of considerations of time and space. However, what happens when the train does not arrive at all? Or when we need to avail of a connecting train, or have another meeting after this one? What if maintaining time becomes a question of life and death, happiness or tragedy, a good future or a horrible future? Then we are ejected from our paradise and drop hard on the rocks of reality. In other words, as soon as we realize that we are not alone (as children who are by nature self-centred think they are), but live within society, within a context, the freedom of timelessness is shattered. A common adage proclaims: The limits of our freedom are where the other persons’ freedom begins.


A sad comment on our society is that many of its members try to manage this issue through hierarchy. They see themselves above others and therefore may arrogate rights which they deny to others and thus widen their freedom to the extent they wish. Most important here is the freedom to command one’s time. Alas, this may work time and again, but not always. Recently no lesser a person than Amitabh Bachchan had to apologize to a gathering to which he arrived one and a half hours late. What was the cause? His car had got stuck in a traffic jam and there was no way to get out of it even for an Amitabh Bachchan!


Normally, however, time is cruel to the less privileged. Outside paradise, punctuality and unpunctuality are instruments in the hands of those with power. A politician or a bureaucrat can allow himself to be late by an hour or two without a murmur being uttered by others. Others wait, so what! The message is: I am busy, very busy, while you have the time to wait and wait. Or else, why are you still standing and waiting here?!


The other day a minister from a neighbouring country and his delegation arrived. Their cars were late by half an hour, then the guests sat in a room sipping tea and talking with officials, while several hundred people waited in two halls for the event to begin. The persons who make others wait, may be subjected to the same ordeal at higher levels of power. They feel the humiliation, the outrage, yet do they see these actions in the context of their own conduct and learn from it?  Perhaps some do. It is an occasion to chuckle when co-passengers fret because their train is late ~ later than a mere half hour. They have to attend office, get business done, be ready for an appointment ~ their day’s plans get upset. But then, how often have these complainers themselves been late, unnecessarily causing similar distress to others?


I insist that punctuality is the virtue of the gentleman and the gentlewoman, no matter in which country and culture we live. They desist from playing the games of power and prestige and understand the humiliation involved in being late, because they see equal worth in everybody. Respect to the socially unprivileged can be expressed best and foremost by being punctual and true to one’s words. I am reminded of stories told of Sri Ramakrishna whose  sadhana entailed that he would do exactly as he had said. He was unlettered and spoke in deft language, yet he had that total dedication to honesty of which punctuality is a part.


Responsible management of one’s time includes the ability to set priorities and to be honest with them. So often I hear the sentence “Sorry, I have no time.” Yet, the honest explanation is: I have no time for you, because I have some preoccupations which need my attention first.” This kind of transparency tends to be less hurtful.


We have looked at the lack of time-consciousness from the point of view of “natural”, rural living which has its distinct charm as long as it does not clash with “modern” expectations and an urgency to make a living. Yet, there is another kind of timelessness, less connected with hierarchy and the dubious games of power. That kind is an unthinking carefreeness, or maybe complacent inertia, or let’s call it an unwillingness to plan and engage in activity. What happens, happens ~ that’s the attitude, why rake one’s brain about the when and how! It is this inertia which Swami Vivekananda castigated when he cried out: “Do something bad, rather than doing nothing at all!”


People with this attitude do not react even when they are faced with the humiliating carelessness of others. The babu comes late to office? A friend has “forgotten” to meet him? So what? They wait or return tomorrow or just let it go. This is a perfect flowing with the current. It is not even joining the meandering movements of a fish swarm, but a total drifting, bypassing whatever obstruction may be on the way. Unfortunately, many young people are affected by this.


Obviously, such a life is not the one for which our mothers suffered birth pangs and year-long confinement to nurse and shelter us as babies; it is not for what our parents have brought us up with many sacrifices. It remains the sacred duty of us parents, teachers and elders to stem us against such drifting because it kills the soul and denies life even before these youngsters have tried to live a life worth living. A life worth living begins with responsible time-management.


The writer is a Tagore scholar based in Santiniketan. He can be contacted at m.kaempchen@gmx.de

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