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

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Indian Standard Time

Why has turning up late to everything become a national trait in our country?

So, home minister Rajnath Singh had a bit of a meltdown when he arrived at a government function five minutes early; only to have it start 12 minutes late. Incensed at this delay, he publicly upbraided the bureaucrats in attendance – and duly made the national headlines.

The response to his outburst was divided. There were those who wondered what all the fuss was about. After all, a 12-minute delay counts as starting bang on time in a country that goes by what is jokingly referred to as Indian Standard Time (one hour behind schedule is par for the course). So, why publicly shame senior bureaucrats for being true to Indian culture? After all, isn’t that what all of us are meant to subscribe to, on pain of being dubbed anti-national?

Then there were those who were thrilled that someone – and a senior minister, no less – had stood up for the virtue of punctuality, which is conspicuous by its absence in India. And that he had taught those lazy bureaucrats – who couldn’t be bothered to turn up well in time for a function they had organized – a lesson that they wouldn’t forget in a hurry.

I have to say that I am on Rajnath Singh’s side on this issue. As someone who always turns up at the time specified on the invitation card and then has to wait hours for everyone else to saunter in, I both empathize and sympathize with the home minister. It is incredibly frustrating to waste a good part of the day waiting for people who demonstrate by their behavior that they have no respect for your time. (Not to mention, terribly annoying.)

Yes, I can hear all you habitual latecomers muttering by this point. Hey, what’s the problem? You don’t want to wait around for others to turn up? There’s a simple solution. Turn up late yourself.

Well, I’m sorry but that is something that I am constitutionally incapable of doing. I was brought up to be punctual; and I will be punctual till the day I die. After all, you know what they say: “You may not be able to change the world; but don’t let the world change you.” As far as I am concerned, those are words to live by.

So, I end up waiting. I wait at seminars, as the audience straggles in, the hall filling up slowly row-by-row (of course, no one would dare start as long as it is half-full). I wait at fashion shows, sitting obediently on my seat while fashion editors and socialities squaff yet another glass of champagne in the hospitality lounge. I wait at sit-down dinners, gazing mournfully at the sad-looking canap├ęs doing the rounds, while the rest of the guests saunter in a good hour late.

And don’t even get me started on doctor’s clinics and hospitals. By now, of course, everyone knows that when doctors give you a time to turn up, it is less an appointment and more an approximation. But even if you turn up 30 minutes after the appointed hour, you will still be made to wait for another 60 minutes. If you complain about the long wait time you will be testily told that The Great Man can’t possibly predict how long each person will take. And it hardly needs saying that his time is much more important that yours.

But all this waiting around has ensured one thing: I have become adept at filling this empty time with stuff so that I don’t blow a gasket like Rajnath Singh did so spectacularly, humiliating senior officers in the bargain.

I use this time to listen to music; I read the book I have downloaded on my phone; I answer emails; I phone a friend I haven’t spoken to in a while; I scroll Twitter to get my daily quota of outrage out of the way; I post pictures of last night’s dinner on Instagram; I update my Facebook status; I do my Keegal exercises; I marvel at the many inventive excuses that people give to explain their tardiness (bad traffic and car breakdowns are hardy perennials, though ‘My Uber failed to turn up’ is gaining in popularity).

I also spend a lot of time wondering what lies behind this chronic Indian tendency to turn up late for everything. And why we seem to have no qualms about keeping other people waiting.

Could it be that a culture that uses the same word (‘Kal’) to mean both yesterday and tomorrow has a very fluid sense of time? Is it down to ancient Hindu philosophy that see time as a ‘chakra’ – ‘Kaal chakra’, the wheel of time – a circular loop that is both unending and endless? Or are these just excuses for lazy, inconsiderate jerks to hide behind?

But whatever the truth of the matter, how do punctual people like me cope with the habitual unpunctuality of others, other than by developing preternatural patience. Well, these days I have taken to giving my dinner guests a time an hour in advance of when I would like them to turn up (8 pm for 9, for instance). And now I live in dread that one of them will be a punctuality hound like me, and turn up when I am still in the shower.

There really is no winning this one!
  

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