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Better Late Than...

In India, time is an elastic concept - get used to 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.” Seema Goswami explains.

india Updated: Aug 06, 2011 20:00 IST
Seema Goswami
Seema Goswami
Hindustan Times

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 you 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 be 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.

Follow Seema on Twitter at

From HT Brunch, August 7

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