12 November 2011

On dimensioning time

“Were you aware, perhaps in a sacred moment of intoxication, that an evil guard imprisons us by the winding of clocks?”

 A close friend of mine was hospitalized for depression and related conditions which warranted close medical observation and indeed restraint for he was convinced there was nothing wrong and consequently given to violent objection to ‘treatment’. This was in 1985.  I believe in August or September.  I spent a month and a half in the Psychiatric Ward of the General Hospital, Colombo with my friend. Nights.

He was convinced that he had acquired special powers.  He once blinked and said ‘nuwara archchi merenava hathai visi pahata’ (‘My grandmother in Kandy will die at 7.25). It was 7.10 pm.  He was claiming that he had willed her death. As the minutes passed, it was clear he was beginning to doubt his powers.  He instructed me to go to his house and bring back his brother’s watch, a digital contraption, where time could be stopped. Well, not ‘time’ but its indication on a display screen.  My friend was playing with time in the most innocent manner. He was devastated when 7.25 pm came and went. He broke down and cried.    

For years I thought time, despite its ‘capture’ for display purposes in a circular frame, was of linear orientation.  It just went straight ahead, it seemed.  Towards death, I might add. 

I was intrigued by the ‘international date line’ when Mrs. Palliyaguru, my Grade 4 class teacher told us about it.  I managed to grasp the logic of how different places can have different times, but was still thrown a bit when I encountered ‘daylight saving time’ in the USA.  It is all relative, now I understand.  I know now that time travel is not impossible.  We can go back in history courtesy memory and far into the future thanks to imagination.  And since each individuals remember things in particular ways at particular moments and also imagine things in ways that are distinct, conceptions of ‘time’ can vary from one person to the next.

Some people divide life into childhood, adolescence and youth; some into childhood, middle age and old age; some into childhood, bachelorhood, married life.  Other dissections are possible of course. 

Sometimes time passes very slowly, too slowly in fact, and that’s a product of anxiety or anticipation. Sometimes the good times pass by very fast. Too fast.  There are years we will never forget, moments too. Then there are years that are eminently forgettable and indeed duly forgotten. Moments too.

It is not just individuals.  Communities, groups and countries can have different time-notions.  An American of the USA, for example, might collapse time and distance, viz ‘it’s 3 hours from here’.  The driver of an intercity coach would speak of distance not in miles or kilometers but the number of audio cassettes that can be played from A to B: ‘cassette piece pahaka dura’ (a distance of 5 cassettes). Or CDs. 

Governments have 5 year plans.  Some have 10 year plans.  We are told to plant rice if we want to plan for a year, plant trees to plan for decades and to teach the people if we want to plan for a century. 

What all this says is that ‘time’ is more complex that it seems.  All this is a long foreword to a simple observation that won’t take too many words.  I believe that the vast majority of people in this country, while they plan an execute with deliberate or instinctive reference to lifetime, are nevertheless deeply conscious of the plural, i.e. lifetimes.  The time-frame is not measurable in the number of cassettes, hours, miles etc., but is sansaaric in dimension.  Deep down, I believe this is why we are a laidback society. We are not in a hurry.  The average Westerner is appalled by what he/she perceives to be scandalous slowness, which is immediately (and understandably) labeled ‘sloth’. 

Are we slothful?  Well, I don’t know.  I think it is about what it important to the particular individual or collective.  Is ‘life’ an aggregation of meetings? Is ‘living’ directly related to size of bank balance, companies/territories acquired etc?  Is ‘living’ amenable to capture in photographs and/or videos?  Is life, on the other hand, about seeing, hearing, breathing, touching, tasting and synthesizing in real time and real space and remembering without the aid of recording device? 

I don’t think we can conclude either way. This much is true, though; things that are proposed and implemented have a better chance of proceeding smoothly (meaning, with greater acceptance and therefore less convulsion) if they are tuned to the pace-ethos of the particular community. 

I am thinking of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, i.e that horribly anti-democratic piece of legislation and process of legislating following the Indo-Lanka Accord.  That was totally oblivious and dismissive of ‘OUR CHOSEN PACE’.  Passed. Resulted in 60,000 deaths. Did not work. 

These things are akin to stuffing one’s mouth with food.  If it’s too much you gag on the food. Or vomit it out.  It depends also on the type of food. Certain foods cause allergies to certain bodies. True for individuals. True for countries.  You can force-feed.  The body suffers.  Can die. Or even revolt and grip by the throat the force-feeder and strangle him/her to death. 

Things happen. Things are happening. There’s a ‘pace’ involved.  Right now, I believe, in substance and pace, there’s a mismatch.  Not healthy.  Certain things cannot be stopped with a watch that can ‘stop’.  No, it is not about time passing. Time does pass. Moves. Let’s say ‘forward’. Nations don’t necessary move in concert, in the same direction.  They are entities that can go back, and indeed self-destruct to levels that forbid reconstruction.