27 February 2023

Moments without tenses

When Benjamin Sisko, the Commander of the space station ‘Deep Space Nine’ in the Star Trek series by that name first encounters the ‘prophets’ in what the Bajorans believe to be the ‘Celestial Temple’ located in a stable wormhole, the entities he encounters (in the form of Sisko’s closest friends and relatives) force him to consider the idea or concept of ‘time.’ Linear time. The entities/prophets seem confused by Sisko’s use of time-related words.

That’s how the series ‘Deep Space Nine’ takes off. Of course time’s linearity is not the entire focus of the series. The tenses are all there for the most part, except for the occasional tweaks in the time-space continuum, inadvertent ventures into parallel universes and such.

The proposition is fascinating, nevertheless. Is time really linear or is that just one way of seeing things? Do we exist in alternative universes even as inhabit what seems, at this particular moment, the one and only existence there could be?

If the timeline were a string and we could pick it up at any point and tug at it, theoretically at least, we could really jumble things up. There are many Star Trek episodes in which temporality is examined. As Captain Janeway of the Voyager confessed, it can give anyone a severe headache. Simply because we are not equipped with the ability to get a grip on the idea of multiple timelines or the rupture of linear time by anomalies we haven’t a clue about or through deliberate tweaking. Maybe we are not that advanced. Maybe it's a force of habit. Maybe, simply, linear time is all there is, the rest being fanciful speculation.  

But let’s leave space fiction alone and get to ‘real’ or, put another way, that which we are fairly confident about: birth, decay and death of all things, corporeal and otherwise. Let’s leave aside intoxicants which, we are told, can slow down time, reconfigure ‘reality’ and take us into orbit without stepping inside a spaceship. Let’s put aside meditation on mindfulness and other such exercises. Let’s talk of moments without tenses in a more simple and less philosophical sense.  

Nothing is timeless, in that ‘normal’ universe, but sometimes things move so slowly that we are struck by the idea of permanency. Mountains never move. The tide comes in and goes out, but the ocean stays. The distance from Colombo to Kandy along a particular route doesn’t change. We don’t switch parents or children at will. We just can’t. Houses decay but the memory of ‘home’ can remain intact. Political upheavals there will always be and the objectives of political engagement may change, but objectives there will always be. Dreams will vary but there’s commonality in this: everyone is wary of death and is inspired to live, everyone wants to inhabit his or her version of perfection.

And then, there’s love. That moment of first recognition that comes with what seems to be a definitive assertion: ‘this is it.’ Whatever came before fades away into nothing. What could come later is irrelevant. It’s like the intersection of orbits. True, there is ‘life’ beyond intersection, but the human mind is so wired that it can at will exaggerate the dimension of the point of intersection. What to a clinical cartographer is nothing more than the intersection of two lines, to lovers would appear, at least subconsciously, an intersection of two roads, each so wide that standing on the side of one road, one will not see the other side because it’s way beyond the horizon. Therefore, the ‘point of intersection’ is as big as a universe. Endless. A moment without tenses: no beginning, no end.

It isn’t limited to romantic love but perhaps love is always a part of it, an inevitable in the suspension of tenses. And love not of the frivolous kind but marked by the affirmation of kindness, compassion, equanimity and the ability to rejoice in the other’s happiness. A set of eyes and a consciousness empowered with such tenderness, perhaps, could roll back the years to the here and now, roll back and erase things assumed to have happened before, roll back and erase things expected to unfold. The here and now, then, would remain and be all that there is.

The hands of a clock would not move. A digital watch would freeze. A birdsong would stop in midair and remain there as though it had never been born and never can perish. In that neither here nor there Commander Sisko will have become one with the prophets of the Celestial Temple and retired forever the idea of linear time and therefore time itself. And in that neither here nor there, in that neither before nor after, a writer typing out an essay would stop. Just stop. 


['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is a new series. Links to previous articles in this new series are given below]

Other articles in this series:

And intangible republics will save the day (as they always have)

The world is made of waves


The circuitous logic of Tony Muller

Rohana Kalyanaratne, an unforgettable 'Loku Aiya'

Mowgli, the Greatest Archaeologist

Figures and disfigurement, rocks and roses

Sujith Rathnayake and incarcerations imposed and embraced

Some stories are written on the covers themselves

A poetic enclave in the Republic of Literature

Landcapes of gone-time and going-time 

The best insurance against the loud and repeated lie

So what if the best flutes will not go to the best flautists?

There's dust and words awaiting us at crossroads and crosswords

The books of disquiet

A song of terraced paddy fields

Of ants, bridges and possibilities

From A through Aardvark to Zyzzyva 

World's End

Words, their potency, appropriation and abuse

Street corner stories

Who did not listen, who's not listening still?

The book of layering

If you remember Kobe, visit GOAT Mountain

The world is made for re-colouring

The gift and yoke of bastardy

The 'English Smile'

No 27, Dickman's Road, Colombo 5

Visual cartographers and cartography

Ithaca from a long ago and right now

Lessons written in invisible ink

The amazing quality of 'equal-kindness'

A tea-maker story seldom told

On academic activism

The interchangeability of light and darkness

Back to TRADITIONAL rice

Sisterhood: moments, just moments

Chess is my life and perhaps your too

Reflections on ownership and belonging

The integrity of Nadeesha Rajapaksha

Signatures in the seasons of love

To Maceo Martinet as he flies over rainbows

Sirith, like pirith, persist

Fragrances that will not be bottled 

Colours and textures of living heritage

Countries of the past, present and future

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains

The ways of the lotus

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville

Live and tell the tale as you will

Between struggle and cooperation

Of love and other intangibles

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions

The universe of smallness

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills

Serendipitous amber rules the world

Continents of the heart The allegory of the slow road