Tetchy thoughts on time

Posted on March 25, 2015


Some months ago, at an airport, I got chatting with a Pakistani man who was a nurse in Finland. He was wearing one of those watches you see in the glossy mags. You know the kind of watch I’m talking about, the kind that looks like a rakhi designed by the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. It had a number of circles inside, each with dials, probably capable of telling you everything from the humidity in South Korea to the temperature on Jupiter. All the while, I kept wondering how much it cost and what a waste it was in this age of cell phones that tell you the time.

I know. It’s not about what the watch does but how it looks. But something about these fancy watches creeps me out. All that money spent to have something ticking on you, telling you that you now have one second less to live – only there’s no red wire or blue wire that can be cut, like in the movies, so you can make it all not happen.

Thinking about watches makes me think about the study of mechanical time-keeping devices. The word for it is “horology,” which always makes me imagine a doctoral student wandering about in Sonagachi. After all, the people who ply their trade there are nothing if not conscious about time.

I sometimes wonder who it was that decided: It’s not enough that we know night from day, summer from spring. We’ve got to divvy it all up into hours and minutes and seconds so that we are aware of the countdown clock in excruciating detail. I’d like to have a few words with this chap, I really would.

Watches, in that sense, are like birthdays. Oh, it’s your birthday today. You have one less year left on this earth. Let’s throw a party and have some cake.

Hosted by imgur.com

Birthdays have become a much bigger deal with Facebook. You get these alerts about who, among your friends, is having a birthday, and there’s a little box that pops up, so you don’t even have to take the effort of clicking your way to their wall. You can write your little congratulatory message right into that box.

Would it make a difference, then, if the box contained a set of pre-written messages and you just had to select one and hit ‘send’? After all, what you’re really saying is: Oh you poor thing, knocking on death’s door. Let me be one of 5000 others who helps you forget this fact by typing out an utterly generic birthday wish.

With a smiley. The smiley always makes things seem so much more heartfelt.

In fact, isn’t that what birthday parties are? All that pinning tails on donkeys and running around chairs to music and getting gifts (hopefully not an expensive watch) – it’s the ultimate distraction from what the day really means.

Birthdays are weirder on Facebook. So you’re either the kind who makes a big deal about birthdays or you’re not. If you belong to the latter category, it’s – as they say these days – no biggie. But if you like birthdays, don’t you like knowing that people have bothered to remember this day and are taking time out to wish you, without a reminder? Isn’t that what this day is all about?

Wow, you remembered, I’m so touched versus Oh, you probably didn’t know it was my birthday but now that this agglomeration of bits and bytes has told you, you’re typing out a wish on your cell phone and then you’re moving on to the cute-puppy picture that’s the next item on your timeline. That’s some cockle-warming going on right there.

I know it sounds like I’m being all kinds of grouchy here, but this is what you do in columns. You have these thoughts and you unburden and let the reader slap a palm to a horrified forehead that while reading this, they’ve inched that much closer to making a lot of worms really, really happy.

An edited version of this piece can be found here. Copyright ©2015 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.