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To be out of time

Time-keeping for humans essentially serves two functions: social and biological. Indrajit Hazra writes.

columns Updated: Apr 21, 2012 21:24 IST
Indrajit Hazra

It's 3.18 pm and another Saturday afternoon, a chunk of space-time sent ahead of Sunday every week without fail as a scout to clear the path for the next day. I don't have much time so what I tell you now will probably reach too late and thereby lose its urgency. But as I sit here inside Saturday and you there inside Sunday, much will have changed in our understanding of how to look at time. And without the handicap of hindsight I can let you know that the only way to value time is to let it slide.

Time-keeping for humans essentially serves two functions: social and biological. The biological function is pretty straightforward, whether it's in the short measure of a pulse — a minute being the time the echo of your heart pumping out blood anywhere between 60 to 100 times can be felt — or in the wear and tear in years that will ultimately lead you to your death. But it's the social function of time that is more obvious and whose signs we are surrounded by in watches, flight schedules, appointments and deadlines. It is because there are more than just one of us that we need to keep time. My 6 pm has to be the same as your 6 pm; your April 22 has to be everybody's April 22. (Different timezones are to plug this lie.) There would be utter chaos, not to mention the complete breakdown of civilisation, if this temporal law was broken on a regular basis.

And yet it is broken rather regularly and most famously by us Indians. But what is remarkable is how we still manage to carry on quite well, thank you very much. The Indian practice of stretching time and factoring in that 12.30 pm could very well be 12.50 stems from the nature of our surroundings. No one understands this better than Prasanna Sankhe, the designer of the 'ish watch' that tells the time the way it really is: as one flow without incremental pit-stops or milestones.

After two days of dilly-dallying, I called up and asked Prasanna how he came up with the 'ish watch'. "In India, we are generally lax about keeping time. No matter how important an appointment, people factor in delays. They'll mention about being late once and then continue with the job at hand. So we at Hyphen [the Mumbai-based design company that he runs with Alok Nanda] thought of how to capture this Indian Stretchable Time," he tells me as I keep a chap from the local kirana shop waiting at the door.

Prasanna believes that this liberal use of making time elastic has its origins in the ground conditions that India has: traffic snarls, hold-ups and the patina of laziness that takes advantage of these conditions. Which is where his 'ish watch' is sheer genius in design, functional and philosophical terms. It's the only modern chronometer I know that, like the ancient water clock and sundial, doesn't impose the human weakness for too many signpoints to measure time. The watch has four points on its dial but with the 12 o'clock, 3 o'clock, 6 o'clock and 9 o'clock markers 45 degrees askew with 12ish, 3ish, 6ish and 9ish marked instead. Effectively, it makes you untighten time.

The 'ish watch' is a great design creation that serves its time-keeping function and, at an affordable Rs. 2,500 a pop, should stand up to the tyranny of 'precise time' on mobile phones that most people use to tell the time these days. But what makes me frankly treat the ish-watch as a venerable object of worship is the fact that it changes the posts of 'social' time. For someone who has turned up late too many times — sometimes turning up too late to salvage anything — the 'ish watch' should finally drive home the fact to my humiliators that time has a long tail and isn't a daisy-chain of momentary pin-pricks.

Speed has its delightful thrills. But being punctual is overwhelmingly a fetish for people who want to get over with things irrespective of the quality of the final product or experience. A looser time-keeping, I am sure, will change things for the better.

The American science fiction writer Ray Cummings, in his 1922 novel The Girl In The Golden Atom, had written the truest and much quoted definition of time: "The Big Businessman smiled. 'Time,' he said, 'is what keeps everything from happening at once.'"

What is less remembered is the cynical reply the Big Businessman got: "'Very clever,' laughed the Chemist." Very soon — and I'd be damned if I peg 'soon' down to a single point in time — I hope the fastidious Chemists in this time-obsessed world are made to use time the way it was intended: by spreading it out.