Disha is a Delhi-based media practitioner. She manages a rural feminist media collective called Khabar Lahariya (khabarlahariya.org) . Shabani Hassanwalia is a filmmaker, one half of Hit and Run Films (hitandrunfilms.wordpress.com). They're both based out of New Delhi.
There Is No Time
The writers of this essay discuss the relationship women at different life-stages have with time in present-day India and learn something they have been suspicious of for a while. That maybe, just like god, time too, is dead.
Part 1: The Death of Time
Kamla is a canny old gossip with an astonishing memory. When she was 32, she got a job outside home. For twenty years, Kamla boarded a bus to get from Sarojini Nagar to ITO before 10 am, to straddle a new world of Rajiv Gandhi era computerised data entry at the National Sample Survey Office. Life required a stamina and steeliness which became her organising principle, her medium of comprehension, the language she used to experience and structure self and memory.
Three years ago, her son, on whom she spent years of time arranged by clockwork nurturing, had a stroke that took away his comprehension of language: the spoken word became foreign to him. Now the woman with the steel will and the uncanny memory – her defining features – began to feel her body betray her. Her legs became stiff, unmovable. Her angina was a frequent visitor, for the first time resulting in frequent familial attention. She had never been one for attention. But watching the son she had imbued with her precision and her pragmatism [he wanted to go into social work once. I told him I hadn’t worked myself to death for him to give up his career] losing his connection to the world, to her, Kamla felt her organising principle weaken.
She used to call him every Sunday. She doesn’t know when the Sundays come now. Time is no longer precise, coherent, dependable. Now the entropy of self, reflected in the ebbing relationship with her son, makes time whimsical, elastic, incoherent.
The idea of the precise time, the fragile but unshakeable foundation of an industrialised society, was frankly ‘preposterous, and seemingly unnecessary’, says Steven Johnson in the BBC commissioned television series How We Got to Now: Six Innovations that Made the Modern World (2014). ‘You couldn’t keep accurate time in the middle of the sixteenth century, but no one really noticed, because there was no need for split-second accuracy. There were no buses to catch, or TV shows to watch, or conference calls to join. If you knew roughly what hour of the day it was, you could get by just fine.’
It is said that Galileo took 80 years to develop the pendulum clock, the first precise measure of time (‘What was an hour before Galileo? How long it took to milk the cow, how long it took to fetch water, those were the units of time…’), the idea for which, like all fables go, was said to have come to him in a moment of daydream, that notorious state of reverie that treats time like a dull ex-lover.
Slowly, though, clocks began to move markets. When we forgot, they reminded us who we were.
We read a piece recently that wondered why time slows down when we are afraid, speeds up as we age and gets warped on vacations. Why do we think that year went by so fast and this year just doesn’t end? It discussed Claudia Hammond’s book Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception, where she says that instead of nursing the belief that time is that ‘utterly reliable and objective thing’ (like god), we should accept the reality of what neuroscientists and psychologists call ‘mind time’, i.e. ‘the idea that our experience of time is actively created by our own minds’.
Or, maybe it started eons ago, in that luminous moment in time when a certain object of one’s affection dared one of us, as only 20-year-olds in lust can, to spend a year without a watch. Or then when another one of us, as only melancholic 35-year-olds can, realised the dimensions of dwelling had reduced to roughly the quarter of a minute available to process a Whatsapp message.
We sat down one evening in a corner of a bar that made us feel old, crowded in by boys with multiple pitchers of beer, and argued about how much difference time made in our lives. One of us felt a daily, acute sensation of the passing of time, managed by intent and planning, by an eye kept steady on her phone. The other felt the ebbing of the significance of time, the somewhat meaningless movement from one frame to the next, the inability to hold a thought or feeling still. There was a constant feeling of nostalgia, even for the bar we were sitting in. Was this 2017, we wondered, that time as universal language, became unrecognisable? Was it a technological or an epistemological crisis of our milieu: the death of the absolute, the valorification of the transitory? Desire and beauty were as wide and deep as your chat history or your latest selfie. Was it really true that the only thing that made a moment in time vivid, palpable, was if it was (un)seen or (un)said on social media, or if it resonated with productive value? But then, there was one absolute that made us pause: the corporeality of time. As we sat in that bar, we were experiencing ourselves as aging bodies, as were each of the people we went out to interview, for this piece. Like Hannah Arendt, we saw the insertion of our mortal selves, with acute sense of our own limited life span, looking back, looking forward, rupturing what was ceaseless, ‘transform[ing] the continuously flowing stream of sheer change … into time as we know it’.
It was Marc Wittman’s recent book, Felt Time (2014), which brought it home for us: it helped us make sense of the slippery revelations of our interviewees, and our own hold on time. Drawing on the disorienting trajectory of Martin Heidegger, and his breaking of linear time, instead linking time to our self-perception of it, we too came to realise – we do not exist beyond time. We are time.
Thus unfolded this tableau of characters drifting between sharp self-awareness or loss of control; notions of time past, and time desired for the future.
Time present was nowhere to be found.
When Gita turned 57, she watched her mother, Prakash, become a child. She watched her lie down on her bed and refuse to get up again. It seemed like a giant tantrum, a willful resistance to the speeding of time the 89-year-old had begun to feel. Prakash, the Army wife who once smoked incomparable ham in her pantry, for parties of 100, never a pearl out of place, never a chiffon repeated, decided that if she spent her day on her bed, then all she would see would be her ceiling, and an unchanging view may slow down that rush between her ears.
Gita decided to handle the tantrum in the way she handled her PhD. Intuiting the endless loop Prakash was trying to evoke, she rebelled and broke her mother’s day into hours. There would be tea at 5.30 am, sponge at 6.30, dalia at 7.30, juice at 8.30 and so on. She broke her own day into minutes. She would call home from work to check on her mother at 7.34 am, 8.10 am, 8.43 am, 9.15 am and so on.
At 63, after three extensions on her job, Gita retired as the vice principal of her school. Prakash was still on her bed, and had now ceased to speak. Gita’s days rang with minutes, but she drowned the sound with hot milk at 11.30 am, fruit at 12.30 pm, lunch at 1.30 pm, dhobi at 2.30 pm, mummy’s physiotherapy at 4.30 pm and so on. I am very busy, she would say to anyone who called, I don’t even realise where the day goes, I only get to read the newspaper after 9 pm, after mom has been given her last medicine. Why don’t you watch TV to pass time, suggests a sister kindly, but dimly. Gita gets angry and goes on to supervise the cook at 6 pm, make dalia at 7 pm, hot water bottle at 8 pm.
When Prakash passed away at 5 am one Tuesday morning in her daughter’s 64th year, it had been 10 years since Gita had taken care of her mother like her own child. 120 people were expected for the prayers at home. Cobwebs were cleared, wasp nests destroyed, cane chairs polished. Gita got the best tent man in town to put up tents, chairs, lace doilies under the chinaware. 65 people came. Gita was not able to spend more than five minutes per person, there’s just so much to do, I’ll be right back with you. The people slowly withdrew, with fear in their hearts, as they watched Gita refusing to sit even for a minute in the 1.2-acre farm of which she was now the sole occupant.
Shubra, 19, a student at Delhi University, grew up in a house in Shimla where her grandparents were murdered by their servant. Each time it rains, the house weeps, just falls apart basically, but they will never leave that house, it means too much to us. Of course I’m sentimental, why would you think I’m not? Shubra was born to an artist mother and lawyer father, and between the two she had two distinct experiences of time. Her mother wakes up at noon and has spent her life telling her daughter not to take life so seriously. Look at the mountains, instead, she says, let’s go for a walk, why don’t we? Her father wakes up at 5 am and goes for golf before he gets to office at 9 am. Shubra is rather more like her father. Her mother’s outlook tempts her, her father’s beats in her blood, whether she likes it or not.
For Shubra, time needs to move, at least, at the promised speed of Airtel’s 4G Rs 999 data plan. Her smartphone screen carries the marks of proverbial wisdom, like faces when they were still weather-beaten. Each smudge has a story, Maggi flavoured, tear-soaked; some fibres from her pillow stuck on it like a lover’s talisman. Of how cruel college can be, how she thought she had friends but they weren’t, you know? The things he wrote about me on Facebook…I don’t think I will ever trust anyone again. You know, it’s very hard to trust people?
Through the 67 minutes that we get to know her in Cafe Coffee Day, Shubhra doesn’t drink, or eat. She talks about electronic detoxing, when did we get like this that we need to detox from our phones? and how she has been feeling very anxious, very upset, very panicky lately, and can’t wait to be older (how old?) – around 22. She thinks she will be more stable, then. She wants to be less impatient, give things more time, not jump from one interest to another. It’s been a process but she’s realised over this time that only with patience will she create a body of work I can be proud of. So she is going to give her current passion, filmmaking, a full three months.
Nearly two centuries after Kierkegaard lamented ‘Of all ridiculous things, the most ridiculous seems to me, to be busy’ – Shubra fills each moment with as much life as she can, grieving each moment as it passes with not enough done. She is on the brink of six internships – I should be able to do at least three, two blogs, one fashion and one on movies and a pending Youtube channel to showcase all the films I’m making. ‘In other words,’ Arendt says, ‘the time continuum depends on the continuity of our everyday life, and the business of everyday life, in contrast to the activity of the thinking ego — always independent of the spatial circumstances surrounding it.’
When asked what growing old means to her, Shubra says it’s when one loses relevance. Like old people, they have experience, but what use is that experience when they don’t understand the time we live in? she says clutching her grandmother’s bracelet who, everyone says, was just like her.
It was around 20 years ago, when she had her daughter, that Uma’s idea of time underwent a sea change. From being the person for whom time was not really an organising principle, in fact it stretched obligingly to accommodate her life, she realised that if she wanted to do all the things she did in the day, she had to plan. Each day became an elaborate event, meticulously choreographed, to make space for her toddler’s meals, and her own increasingly demanding work. When you start managing time, it starts managing you, she says, and it’s only part joke.
Choosing to retire at 50, is not the same as being made to retire after 60. That’s what she told herself. Now at 54, as she eases her way out from a work and life she spent twenty-five years building, Uma’s hunger for time is insatiable. The person who used to glide above notions of punctuality and productivity now has wheels that will not stop moving. Each fraction of the hour that is not used, in work or the more tedious work on the self, becomes a cause for judgment and anxiety. I woke up at 8 am today instead of 7.30 and I felt so guilty. She must spend minutes each day with her aging parents. Kavya has been locked in her room for two days now, she should take her for a movie. Is there enough salad for dinner? Is Rekha’s ticket waitlisted? Can she travel with Vandana? Wasn’t yesterday Shalini’s birthday? Can she meet her for lunch? When is the Arth Trust meeting? Doesn’t that overlap with the virtual reality workshop that funder wanted her to attend? But shouldn’t she rather travel for their advisors’ meeting? Tomorrow is lunch with her sister and niece? But it’s the same time as her therapy session… should she make it breakfast? But Menaka never reschedules. And what about her father’s check-up? Who will take the dogs out? Is that Sunita on the news?
Has she split the hour into ten fractions? Is each filled? Is there the potential to fit in two more tasks? To stretch time? There always is.
She used to feel much more productive.
Part 2: The Performance of Desired Time
Bice and Lydia ask Antonio to take a photograph of them while they are playing among the waves, in Italo Calvino’s The Adventure of a Photographer. ‘What drives you two girls to cut from the mobile continuum of your day these temporal slices, the thickness of a second? Tossing the ball back and forth, you are living in the present, but the moment the scansion of the frames is insinuated between your acts, it is no longer the pleasure of the game that motivated you but, rather, that of seeing yourselves again in the future…. The taste for the spontaneous, natural, lifelike snapshot kills spontaneity, drives away the present. Photographed reality immediately takes on a nostalgic character, of joy fled on the wings of time, a commemorative quality, even if the picture was taken the day before yesterday. And the life that you live in order to photograph it is already, at the outset, a commemoration of itself…’
In conversation after conversation with people about their relationship with time, the photograph came up. The discovery of old photographs or the creation of a new one was often a measure of a moment that carried weight, which may last the finite lifetime of our skin. For some, a photograph collapsed years into a moment. For others, each moment had a photograph, a cinematic feat.
In the observation of the image(s) that seemed to tell our interviewees’ lives, better than they themselves could, it was striking that what they most of all were attempting to capture, to hold in place, perhaps to commemorate, was a control over time – that was increasingly transient, absent even. In Susan Sontag’s powerful essay, “On Photography”, she says, eerily preemptive of all our millennial lives, that the photograph becomes a control mechanism we exert on the world, the holding of power that perhaps slips away in our milieu of transitory moments. ‘Photographs really are experience captured, and the camera is the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood. To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge — and, therefore, like power.’
And in the case of some of our interviewees, it becomes their boundary setting apparatus, damming the unwanted flow of time. ‘To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.’
Shubra says she made most of her friends in college through Instagram. They like her photographs and say something nice and then a friendship is struck. She showed her latest post on Instagram, I found this desk and chair abandoned with this truck in the middle of CP. Can you believe this is middle of CP? It looks like another time, with the composure of someone who has lived every minute as 60 seconds. Her phone screen tries its best to load her face when the phone rings. It was a confusing feeling. Should she take the call or let it ring and continue to watch the slow-moving Instagram of her life come alive? It was a tough decision, but she made it. The phone finally stops ringing. There’s her face, in all its youthful glory. Everyone says I look like someone else. Isn’t that amazing?
She refreshes the page, automatically. There are so many of her, she’s everywhere.
One of the things that Gita kept away during all the years she nursed her mother was her beloved Yashica, a quaint relic for some, but dependable companion for her, all through her life. She took out the last unfinished reel, dusted it, wrapped it in an old muslin nightie and put it under her saree blouses. She had decided that she wanted no photographic evidence of what was happening now and hereon. Consequently, miffed by this rejection, Prakash’s large farmhouse slowly started peeling its paint. Flowerbeds were overrun by weeds. Cows landed their dung in the middle of the walkway. Cobwebs took over the verandah. Wasps made their home in cane chairs. Even the hand pump was spoilt with negligence, and gave very little water for all the screeching it did.
About two months after her mother died, Gita started dusting. She started with the old photographs, but soon moved onto changing bedcovers, curtains, and even got herself a new coat of paint. The flowerbeds came back to life, and the following year saw a bumper crop of litchi. She got herself a Samsung Galaxy S2 and downloaded Whatsapp. She added herself to the group of ‘Old Teachers of Army School’, ‘Army School Alumni’, ‘Jalandhar Army Children’, ‘Great XX Sisters’, ‘Hello’, ‘We Are All Cousins Here’, among a few more. Photographs of nasturtiums streamed. She would shoot everything that bloomed, in its first day, and last day. She forwarded messages on how to keep dementia at bay.
Her sisters called her up and said, come to Delhi, you are free now. She said, where is the time? I have so much to do. She still reads the newspaper at 9 pm.
The period of time she remembers as the best in her life is an image that pervades and tortures Uma’s present state of productivity. Time was measured in months and not weeks, it was leisurely, it was expansive. She was in Rajasthan, it was the beginning of her working life, years spent as a feminist activist and trainer in the eighties and early nineties. The work was a series of long, intense conversations; or long hours spent in trainings and workshops where she was immersed in other lives, other realities, living and breathing a politics of change. She has a strong memory of the way the day progressed, of relationships that defined it. Life had fewer boundaries, everything was fused, life, work, friendships. We would go from work to home, keep talking about what had happened in the day, in the field, in the training. Somewhere along the way, we would start to cook, dividing up the tasks, talking, drinking. Ours was the house where the pressure cooker whistled at 2 in the morning.
If there was a timekeeper, it was passion, the urge to immerse oneself in a task, a piece of writing or research, a conversation that could capture the historical, political moment they occupied.
When Uma retired, she thought she would be able to go back leading days that stretched into months, instead of being fractured into hours and minutes. But one can’t go back, despite the apparent opening up of time, the constant remembrance of a different and desired self, a self endlessly generous with people and things, not deferring to productivity.
Of course, there is the small debacle of our politic era, which has well and truly warped time and space and any absolutes. Right-wing politics is the norm, a world away from the politics of the eighties, her defining moment. A language of transformative politics which was so familiar to her, has been torn of its passion, its radical potential, and is now part of the bluster that echoes all around. She hears her words spoken by others, but it makes no sense. My grandmother said, when she was 80, that the world has changed too much, I can’t deal with it. I feel like that at 50.
One hot, dusty autumn three years ago, when she still lived alone in her DDA apartment in west Delhi, Kamla spent a day pouring over a polythene bag full of photographs dating back to her twenties. The occasion was entirely without nostalgia. She recalls events and people and set pieces of her life, sixty, fifty, thirty years ago with clarity and a lack of yearning: a lack, it seems, of emotional distraction.
Today she is flung, Rapunzel-like, on the 3rd floor of her caretaker-daughter’s apartment, with only the news to keep her company. It’s here that her granddaughter comes to visit one evening. Her heart seems weak, her bones cannot support her fast diminishing structure. Her steeliness is no match for a buxom daughter’s insistence that she can no longer live independently. She is disinclined to talk about her sisters, or indulge any urge to reminisce. Instead, she shows her granddaughter a brand new smartphone another grandchild has bought her, to fill the endless time she now has, time that all through her life, seemed to fill itself. She taps the screen, first gently, then harder, but it fails to light up. Her granddaughter fiddles with the phone and hands it back. Kamla scrolls through the five chats that show on the app, and opens one with her son. She taps a photograph of him, pink hospital gown and rosy cheeks, on a wasted frame. In the background, her grandson is slouched on a chair, on his phone. She’s been told this is the way to keep within the periphery of her son and grandchildren’s memory. Her mind still moves at 100 frames a minute, but she is less precise, less certain than her granddaughter has ever heard her; her eyes are dry, but emotion seems to spill into the tremor of her hands, as she taps the screen, unsuccessfully.
It should be apparent by now that this piece had less to do with Heidegger and Kant and Calvino and Arendt and Wittman than our own sense of the only reality we could be sure of was that of entropy (and the second law of thermodynamics, definitely our favourite one, which says that entropy increases with time). Our phones marked the life and death of memory and love, they determined what we would remember and how, and how much time we had for passion. Timelessness – the absence of actual time – we whispered to each other. We took our own fading memory and acute sense of the movement of time into the lives of others, who we saw also engaged in an endless play with time, depending on where they were in their lives, or how many social media platforms they had to live on. Only time was as fictional as our ever-changing selves.
In the end, to make sense of this disorientation, this disintegration, this slipping away of linear, structured time – we discovered ourselves in others, and we told ourselves, yes, we are time. We carry our past in the present, our future too. We make our digital lives timeless, and reject the tyranny of sequential time. We remember, and forget, and just like that, in our thoughts, we step out of time. Like Patti Smith, on the M Train. ‘Catching a fragment from a window seat, yet another fragment from the next identical frame? If I write in the present yet digress, is that still real time? Real time, I reasoned, cannot be divided into sections like numbers on the face of a clock. If I write about the past as I simultaneously dwell in the present, am I still in real time?’