I got to a meeting exactly on time the other day, braving stormy weather, heavy traffic and a rather large cow that seemed to think it had been called to a higher purpose in the middle of the street. I walked into the meeting room feeling a bit flustered, but then I saw that the lady I was meeting was eating her breakfast. I sat down and tried not to stare at her food (always a difficult task for me). She looked up at me with a smirk on her face.
“What is this, ma?” she asked.
“That looks like a dish of flash-fried dumplings, served in a slow-simmered tropical broth of heirloom tomatoes and lentils, and finished with a glaze of clarified butter and air-popped mustard seeds. Known to punters as bonda-soup,” I said, eager to show off my Masterchef knowledge.
“Tch tch, I am not talking about that. I am talking about your sense of time!”
“Oh, sorry madam. I got too excited. But I was exactly on time.”
“That’s what I’m also saying, ma. You say 9.30 means you land up exactly at 9.30 ah? Why to do that? It makes life very difficult for everyone, you see.”
The meeting went quickly downhill from there.
I’m not one of those people who are naturally punctual. My ability to arrive somewhere on time is a function of having my watch set ahead by a random number of minutes. I know what you’re going to say. You’re going to say, “Why are you still using a watch to tell the time?” I confess to be rather old-fashioned in this regard. I do use my phone for emails, maps, restaurant menus, and Captain Vijaykanth jokes. Occasionally, I even make phone calls with it. But I still like to use a watch to tell the time, just like our forefathers did. So what if it’s a little imprecise?
Anyway, from now on, I’ve resolved to check beforehand what people mean when they give you a time. “Excuse me, sir,” I will say, “When you say we can meet at 2 pm, do you perhaps mean 2.15 pm? 2.47 pm? Or maybe, and answer this carefully, you mean we can meet at 7 for a light tiffin of bonda-soup?”
I recall reading a Stephen Hawking book where he talked about space-time curvature, and the idea that one could warp space-time so much that someone shooting off into space in a rocket would arrive before they started. I wonder then if science can explain why everyone in India is always in a tearing hurry but no one ever reaches on time.
Look at us on the roads. If a car at the traffic signal is slow to take off when the lights turn green, everyone starts honking in a kind of crazy orchestra. “How dare he delay me by one second?” they seem to say, “I have to be somewhere! On time!” If a car slows down or stops to turn, everyone again honks madly and drives around the car, shaking their fists and saying, “What kind of irresponsible driver makes turns? Don’t you have appointments like the rest of us?”
The other mystery is our inability to estimate delays despite our rich mathematical heritage. Anyone and everyone who is running late always claims to be within a five-minute radius of the proposed location. I still remember that Sunday morning we spent waiting for Puttaraj plumber to come repair our leaking water pipe. Puttaraj had said he was nearby and that he would be there at 10. At 10.30 there was no sign of him, so I called him. “I’ll reach in five minutes”, he said. Half an hour later, I called again. “Five minutes, five minutes”, he said and cut the call. Over the next one-and-a-half hours, Puttaraj firmly and politely maintained that he was only five minutes away. When he finally walked in, well past lunchtime, he smiled and said, “I was nearby madam, so only I could come this fast”. To his credit, he fixed the leaks quickly and only charged us a nominal amount.
As he was leaving, I heard him talking on the phone to a customer in Basavanagudi, a suburb about 15 km away from where we live. Even on Sundays, it’s an easy half-hour away. “Don’t worry sir”, Puttaraj was saying to the man, “I am nearby only. I’ll be there in five minutes.” And then he hopped on his space-time warping scooter and zoomed off.