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Journalist, Author, Columnist. My Twitter handle: @seemagoswami

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Better late than...

In India, time is an elastic concept – get used to it

Last Saturday, on the eve of Delhi’s Slut Walk, I was invited to participate in a BBC Radio programme to discuss the issue with one of the organisers (who shall remain nameless for reasons that will rapidly become clear). So, I duly turned up at the studio at the appointed hour to meet the thoroughly charming Akanksha Saxena, a researcher for the BBC, who was going to coordinate the chat between Delhi and London.

She led me to the studio, sat me down, explained the process, and then we settled down to wait for the other guest to arrive. Ten minutes passed. Another five went by. The producer from London called up to ask what was wrong. We are still waiting for the second guest he was told.

Another five minutes ticked past. Akanksha finally called the lady in question on her mobile. “Oh, I’m just five minutes away,” she announced airily.

So, we waited. Another ten minutes ticked past. London called again, the producer sounding abjectly apologetic about making me wait. Another call was made to the lady. Mysteriously, she was still five minutes away.

And then, a good 48 minutes after the appointed time the Slut Walk organiser finally walked into the studio and the discussion began. It lasted about 20 minutes, which was less than half the time that we had been kept waiting.

But what struck me most after the event was not the discourtesy inherent in making so many people wait while you casually saunter in nearly an hour late. What made more of an impact on me was how resigned and philosophical Akanksha and I were about the delay as compared to the two Englishmen on the other end of the line in London. They were absolutely mortified about the fact that one of their guests was cooling her heels in the studio and couldn’t stop apologising. But as Indians, we regarded this sort of behaviour as pretty much par for the course (though that’s not to say that Akanksha didn’t apologise as well!).

But that’s the honest truth isn’t it? Time-keeping isn’t something that we take at all seriously in this country. Everybody regards an appointment as an approximation and turns up pretty much when they feel like it. And no matter what, if you call up to ask how long they will be, the answer invariably is, “Oh, I’m just five minutes away.”

This somewhat cavalier attitude to time is apparent in other areas as well. Try and get some repair work done in your home. The contractor will assure you it will take two days at the most. Two weeks later, the workers will still be driving you insane with the noise they make. Order a new piece of furniture in a store. The salesman will assure it will take two weeks tops to deliver. Of course it will be two months before it actually arrives at your door-step. Call in the electrician/plumber to deal with some crisis. They will assure you they will be there in the next 10 minutes. Consider yourself lucky if they turn up even three hours later.

There is a word for this sort of behaviour. In most civilised societies it would be called lying. But we brush it aside as just one of those things – even standard business practice. After all, you’re not actually supposed to take somebody seriously when it comes to time – by now you should know that in India it is more an elastic concept than an absolute measurement.

Perhaps that accounts for the fact that people you know only professionally think nothing of calling up on your mobile at 10 pm to extend an invitation to a dinner or ask you to attend a fashion show or a book event. And when you don’t take the call, they call again and again and again – until you’re forced into putting the damn thing off just to get rid of them.

Turn the phone on again in the morning and you’ll find that you have a dozen missed calls from them, between the hours of 11 pm and midnight and 7-9 am. Task them with being rude and intrusive and they will act as if you’re the one who’s lost it. After all, what does it matter what time they call; you’re still awake right? Then why can’t you take the call?

This sort of elemental discourtesy and disregard of time extends well into our social lives as well. I defy you to organise a sit-down dinner in India and actually have people sit down to dinner at the appointed time. When you finally corral them into a restricted space, confiscate their drinks, and physically guide them to their chairs a good hour or two later, 20 per cent of them will remember they have another engagement and decamp, another 20 per cent will announce that they can only stay for the first course, and another 10 per cent will simply get up and leave before dessert can be served on the grounds that they’ve stuck around long enough.

And then, there’s the other extreme. You arrive at a dinner party at what you consider to be a reasonable time (i.e. an hour after the time specified on the card) only to find that you’re one of the first people to turn up. Slowly the other guests will trickle in, get stuck into their liquor and canapés, and dinner won’t laid out till well after midnight – by which time you’re longing for bed rather than biryani.

As I said, time is an elastic concept in these parts – get used to it.


kalpana said...

It is extremely frustrating and I do believe that resignation and 'staying cool' is not the best response. Accepting bad behaviour simply ensures that it continues. Instead, we must do as you have done, and question, exclaim and be generally horrified at this tardiness. Once we stop accepting it as the norm, it will perhaps stop being the norm.

Kunnu said...

Absolutely. Absolutely. Absolutely.

Say what you mean, Mean what you say.


Larisa said...

We are an independent nation and it is our birth right to place "I" "me" and "myself" above all!
We do not care for other persons or the value of their time.
This amounts to not only coming late, but also trying to move past ahead of others standing in front of us in the queue; We want to be the first ones to board an airplane and the first ones to alight.
We do not stop on red lights and do not care if the others have waited for their signal to turn green.
Simply put, we are very un courteous and uncivilized people. We are a nation of uneducated literates.

Author Smart said...

Larisa's comments are very much true and off course the writers version. Once i gone to HDFC Bank for money transfer, the clerk on desk told me ' sorry i can't do instantly you ahve to wait 10 - 15 minutes' shocked i stranded their for another good 1 and half hour when luckily bank manager upon seeing me ask the fellow to do the task and again he took next 30 mints to finish the task. This trend we find everywhere, during college days these was always a sense like sir is coming is late, madam is not coming today, and when on job it always that an office colleague is late good an hour, may be because his transport late blah ... blah... The TIME is one of the Most STRETCHABLE concept in India. Thanks for the beautiful writing. DK (www.dkoffice.in)