In the months since my return to India, I have spent a great deal of time just waiting. At home, I have waited for the plumber, the electrician, the phone and Internet connection guy. Outside the home I have waited in banks, post offices, restaurants, and doctors’ offices. While my toes twitch and impatience settles like a mask around my face, I find others calmly reading last week’s newspaper, looking around aimlessly or engaging in animated conversation with total strangers. This apparent lack of urgency and comfort in the leisurely pace of activity would have helped me slow down if I had not seen the other extreme. Everywhere in India people race across devilishly in front of lumbering trucks and trains, jostling and pushing at bus stops and vegetable markets, as if their lives depended on getting to their destinations or completing their tasks in record time. This striking contrast in attitude towards time is no different from the other spectacular disparities that are so stereotypical of Indian life. However, adjusting to the all-pervasive concept of Indian Standard Time (IST) has been more difficult than I had imagined.
In the book May You Be the Mother of a Hundred Sons author Susan Bumiller, a Washington Post reporter who spent four years in India in the 1980s, makes an astute observation about Indian attitude towards punctuality in a lighter vein. Describing her experience at one Indian wedding she notes, “The wedding started ‘on time,’ a mere two hours behind schedule. I arrived only a half hour later thinking this would be socially correct, and found myself alone with the caterer.”
I have been alone with the caterer quite often at Indian gatherings, not just in India but also in the United States. At other times, I have been kept waiting as the host. Sometime I invited Indian friends over for dinner.
“How about seven?” I would ask.
“Sure,” was the enthusiastic reply in most cases.
Then I would wait. If I was lucky, the guests showed up at 8:00 p.m. If not, they would start trickling in by 9:00 p.m. and by the time I had full quorum some guests would begin departing.
At what point does this careless disregard for time take root in the Indian psyche? To this day, schools in India emphasize the value of being punctual. Repeated late arrivals are frowned upon and quite often considered a punishable offence. But within the confines of the same school premises, it is common to find school functions starting an hour or two late. The worst offenders are the chief guests. The incongruity of the situation is not lost on the bright kids who can clearly discern the difference between “Do as I say” and “Do as I do.”
In colleges, timings may not be as rigidly enforced, but examinations are always time-bound. I am reminded of a friend who arrived three hours late for an exam and had to wait another year to re-take the same exam in order to graduate. All these lessons are good preparation for Indian work life where hours are rigorously monitored. Most offices have well-defined work hours and appropriate monitoring methods to enforce them. This includes call centers that operate at unearthly hours.
The scope of IST extends beyond just mere punctuality. Within the rigid confines of office hours, work itself is approached with detachment. This is why you wait for an hour at the pediatrician’s after having made an appointment for 11:00 a.m. because calling ahead for an appointment does not ensure a prompt meeting. It actually means that the doctor’s office has given you the go-ahead to come in and hang out in the waiting area. IST also comes into play when the carpenter assures you that the work will be completed by Friday. While you naïvely interpret it as the first Friday after that promise, it actually means a Friday in the distant future.
In a recent article about a visit to Greece, an Indian author claims a feeling of kinship with the Greeks who were observed as not having a fetish for privacy and punctuality. If punctuality and adherence to timelines is not some geographically-limited, genetically-inherited, social predisposition, is it a cultural trait shared by people descended from ancient civilizations? When time hangs in installments of centuries, the hours are nothing but mere blinks in this ageless continuum.
Apart from speculating on the reasons for our well-documented penchant for tardiness and laid-back attitude, I sometimes wonder if this disregard is a possible cause for our general indifference towards loss of life. When great natural or man-made disasters occur in India, the death toll is fairly substantial. Although fully aware that these numbers may have been grossly under-reported, it barely registers on our subconscious. On the other hand, loss of even a few lives among people of other nationalities usually gets much wider media coverage and discussions. “Is Indian life undervalued?” This question frequently arises at such times. Usually we brush it off since the casualties add up to only a small fraction of the total population and quickly move on with the daily business of life. But what is life if not a continuous and finite thread of time allotted to each of us. By letting this resource that cannot be replenished slip through our fingers, are we not wantonly wearing out our precious moments and hanging precariously from this thread?
Putting the philosophical argument aside, practically dealing with IST in daily life is particularly frustrating because your life is so intimately enmeshed with those around you. Both at work and outside, I find myself alone and helpless, racing beside the vast majority that slowly marches on at a completely different pace. I know I cannot change my fellow countrymen but the task of recalibrating myself to IST may in itself prove to be a lifelong endeavor.
I realize I must have made some progress when I voluntarily decide to take a cue from my genuine well-wishers who often ask me, “What’s the rush?”
Ranjani Nellore, a former San Francisco Bay Area resident, now lives and writes in Hyderabad, India.