28 December 2013

Tomorrow is Tuesday the Second of June 2009, did you know?*

More than twenty five years ago, my brother Arjuna and I paid a visit to our father at his office. He was at the time a Deputy Director at the Sri Lanka Institute of Development Administration.  We had gone there to obtain permission to go on a camping trip to Horton Plains. He later reported to our sister that we had been hovering outside his office like to union leaders. 

It was not exactly a flat ‘no’ that we got.  ‘I don’t have money to give you,’ he said.  We had already sorted that one out, our aunt having kindly agreeing to finance the trip.  We were due to leave on the 24th of December. He asked us when we would be returning. ‘January 2nd,’ I answered.  ‘Then you can’t go because the family has to be together on the first day of the year,’ he objected.  It did not occur to me then to remind him that ‘New Year’ to any Sinhalese even vaguely conscious of his/her identity dawns around the 13th of April.

‘That is a more serious objection than lack of money,’ I told him, adding impertinently that he mentioned money first, indicating that he really didn’t want us to go and was fishing for a reasonable enough objection.  He was not amused: ‘Ok, go! But remember that if you do, you cannot come back home!’  I went. Aiya stayed back.  I did come back but that’s another story.  The issue here is the first of January.  What it means.  What any day means. 

A friend of almost four decades once wrote to me after reading my article ‘Diaries, diarizing and the happily ‘un-diarized’’:

“Long ago, I read a piece in a Reader's Digest where a narrator (a man from New York) relates his journey with a group of Eskimos.  He wrote that Eskimos, “funnily”, have no sense of time and their focus is only on doing something; they never raise or answer the question "when..?"  

Harsha Wickramasinghe, who works at the Sustainable Energy Authority, and has on numerous occasions offered comments that have illuminated many dark corners of the universes that I have ventured to explore, asked me if I had read it.  I had not. 

‘I removed the t axis (the x axis which denotes time) from my life,’ he wrote. I was not sure if the ‘I’ referred to Harsha or to the author of the article he had mentioned.  It doesn’t matter. 

What matters is that ‘time’ is made of seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, years and so on and at the same time these units are mere conveniences and have no absolute and overarching value.  Time is what we make of it.  I once asked, in jest, ‘Were you aware, perhaps in a sacred moment of intoxication, that an evil guard imprisons us by the winding of clocks?’  Think about it. 

There are cultures that think time is cyclical.  Some people measure it in hours, some in terms of life expectancy and some in terms of lifetimes, i.e. in ‘sansaric’ dimensions.  The dimensions of time, then, are culture-bound.  I remember Champika Ranawaka writing an article to ‘Vidusara’ in the late nineties, i.e. around the time ‘daylight saving time’ was introduced courtesy a power crisis, using the notion to explain how time is a relative concept.  We can think of time in terms of the last flood, the number of harvests since an event occurred, the number of moons that have passed, the last time we felt the magic of love and so on. 

And yet, we are time-bound. ‘News’ arrives at a particular moment. We ‘clock-in’ and ‘clock-out’. There is a thing called ‘retirement age’. Insurance policies mature on a particular date. There are ‘auspicious times’ that are consulted.  On the other hand we can pick and choose the degree of our slavery to Father Time.  We can wreck frames of reference.  Life can be made to be less predictable and this can be good and bad of course.  But if, like Harsha (or the author he quotes) we take out the t-axis or at least think of it less as rod than as string and therefore hold one end and shake it a little, a million pieces of magic can be startled to flight. 

The first day of January is like your birthday.  There’s something special about it, we have been taught to conclude.  I remember another December, perhaps a year after my father issued that forbidding end-note to our ‘union’ meeting.  Another trip.  We were to leave on December 31st.  The point was the see the first sunrise of the new year from atop Samanala Kanda.  Chamath, who was to join the party, had not got permission from his father.  He had asked Chamath cynically, ‘anith dawas walata vadaa godaak venas athi neda?’ (it must be very different from other sunrises, right?).  

Tomorrow is the 2nd of June, 2009. It is a Tuesday.  I am convinced.  How about you?

*First published on December 31, 2009  

Malinda Seneviratne is a journalist who can be reached at msenevira@gmail.com


Anonymous said...

What is the significance of 2nd June , 2009?

Malinda Seneviratne said...

It's an invitation for any reader to do whatever he/she wants to do with clocks and calendars. :)

sajic said...

The aborigines of Australia, like the Eskimos, are not bound by the concept of 'man made' time. They go walkabout when they choose to explore the infinite. Perhaps the primitive peoples have something we have lost.