Thursday, August 14, 2014

Is that *really* the time?

I grew up in a family where life was always just a little bit interesting – and often not in a good way. Both my parents were career people and our home was always full of people walking in and out. I had high-strung aunts, so yelling-matches between my dad and his sisters were par for the course. My mom, a true flower-child at heart, held a regular job and did everything that was required of her, while remaining stubbornly free and quirky in spirit.

So home was always just slightly off-kilter, a very informal, very to-hell-with-rituals sort of place. Not that my parents were itinerant or irresponsible – far from it. They were just your average hard-working immigrants who had a decidedly rationalistic outlook to life. I grew up without many of the rules most ‘70s kids had to deal with. I don’t remember having too many toys or clothes, but what I did have, as a gift from mom, for as long as I can remember, was the right to always, but always, voice my opinion and do just as I wanted. (And boy, did that come back to bite her!)

That air of informality made our home enviable to visiting cousins and friends. You could eat and slouch around and do what you liked – always accompanied by lots of mom-inspired laughter. I, on the other hand, craved a bit of structure. I looked at my friend Vasumati’s Tam-brahm family with envy. Their life was rigorously routine-driven. Each meal was precise (three lots of pressure-cooked wedges of rice with ghee, sambar and curd respectively), and they had regular pujas at home accompanied by a manically tinkling bell. Best of all, Aunty was a stay-at-home mom, while Uncle had a regular job (and didn’t take off on work like my dad). Then there were the exciting few days in the month when their well-regulated household went nuts. Vasu’s dad cooked frantically, the children were yelled at: ‘Keep away from amma!’, and Vasu’s mom sat in a room by herself. Things seemed briefly crazy and I sorely wished something like that would happen in our house. It didn’t, of course. Nairs aren’t usually hysterical about menstrual taboos.

My mom – ex-hostelite and career gal – was delightfully lax about everything. I could sleep in for as long as I wanted (a sin in other units of our family) and wear what I wanted, and not bathe if I didn’t feel like it. My hair was rarely oiled, and mom never insisted – unlike Vasu’s –  that I always wear a ‘shimmy’ or a chemise under my clothes (for some reason, wearing the chemise under your clothes thing had become a sign of great modesty among families in our neighbourhood).

The one symbol of this pleasantly relaxed set up was our wall clock. It was a medium-sized wooden box, with a glass pane that had bunches of detailed curlicues embossed on it. The buds and petals of the pane hid a large steel pendulum that you could always hear, no matter what other ambient noise filled the room. The clock had to be wound regularly, of course, and often the adults forgot to do so. This meant that you stared at the same time for a few days, and the world still carried on. Then one of the grown-ups – a cousin or my mom or dad – would climb a chair and use a butterfly-like metal key to wind it up. There was a delicious whirring sound, and then, suddenly, the pendulum’s majestic tick-tocking would fill the room again.

When I was 9-and-a-half, my dad died. Much changed in our lives – I felt like I’d moved out of the pleasant fog of childhood into a crystal-sharp reality. With one less adult around, our clock got wound a lot less and developed an eccentricity. It began to gain time. Once wound, it would go faster by a few minutes every day. We discovered this quite accidentally. Initially, we could never predict how much faster it was – but in a while we figured out that it usually gained time in multiples of five.

So, if you were rushing for a train or a bus, and you shouted, ‘What’s the time?’ The reply would be, ‘8.45. No, wait, not 8.45, it’s actually... wait, we wound it last Monday, and it’s Saturday today, so, wait 5, 10, 15, 20... No it’s 8.25, actually.’ Phew! Whatever time the clock showed, you always knew that really, somehow, you were ahead of it. It wasn’t 8.45 yet, but when 8.45 happened finally, you would have  already stared at that moment in time and laughed in its face.

When we moved up a bit in life, mom bought us a larger home, which had – hooray! – a real bedroom. And we had three clocks. The demented wooden one wasn’t thrown away – for some reason, it took pride of place in the hall. Things got even more interesting then. We didn’t have to add and subtract minutes now. We just had to shout, ‘What’s the time?’ and someone from hall would reply, ‘9.30inthehallclock!’ while someone else in the kitchen would shout out, ‘No! 9.10inthekitchenclock!’ And the person in the bedroom would holler, ‘No, it’s actually 9.15inthebedroomclock, I checked with the News time yesterday!’ You could pick your favourite clock to follow. And if you asked what the time was and the person in the room it was in did not reply, you could shout out, ‘...Inthebedroom? What is it? Tell me - quick!’

I still have three clocks at home. My bedroom clock, the one I peer at reluctantly every morning, is still fast by about 20 minutes. When I open my eyes and see that it’s 6.15 a m, I know that it’s 5.55 a m really, and yay! I have 20 whole minutes more to sleep! The hall clock is ahead by just 10 minutes, because it’s closer to the door. My cel phone shows the precise time, as dictated by the government of India. And the clock in Amit’s room is exactly on the dot.

Amit grew up in a universe far, far away from mine, and he believes that clocks should show the precise time, and that all the clocks in the house should march at the same pace. He doesn’t like it when I shout, ‘Hurry! It’s 10.20inthehallclock, but you can also chill a bit because it’s actually 10.10 inmyphone!’ From the bedroom, panic lacing his voice, he shouts back, ‘But I can see that it’s 10.35 here!’. It really annoys him that I laugh and yell back, ‘Come ON! You can’t go by the bedroom clock!’ Hahaha!

We had one of our serious, this-is-an-intervention type chats about it. Why, he asked me, can we not go by the actual time? Why must the right time be sifted through filters of wrong times – especially in the morning when we’re all trying to get the child to the school-bus by 7.53 a m precisely? I really had no clear answer for once, except that it felt – somehow – like a psychological advantage that I never wanted to lose. But how is it one, he asked?

Honestly? I don’t know. All I can say is that I remember the excitement of that moment in Around the World in 80 Days when Phileas Fogg and Passpartout return to London, dejected, believing that they have lost Fogg’s bet. Only to find out that they have, in actual fact, gained a whole day. The author – in a totally pedagogical exercise – explains how time is gained when you travel from West to East and back again, in small accumulations of 5 minutes each day, dropping, I thought, like coins into a box. And something about that careful calibration of time appeals to me, and makes me feel like I’m in a race against myself.

It keeps me tethered to that quirk-filled household of my mother's even as I obsess about stuff like breakfast, the two tiffins, the two precise pony tails, and so much else.

So yes. In short, the clocks in our house continue to be set ahead of time. For no particular reason.


Deepa Krishnan said...

Oh what a blast it was reading this one!

mandar talvekar said...

for a long while i did the same - wrist watch, hall clock and even cell phone in different time zones. And i would spend a goodish time each day while rushing for the morning train trying to figure out the most correct time. Then one day, just like that, i switched to the automatic "network" time on my cell. Not that it helped me much :(

Banno said...

I loved reading this post. I can't quite get the clock business, but I get it. :)

Unknown said...

So used to fb now that I tried to 'like' your comments :) thanks, deepa! and mandar, what on earth is network time? banno, you can join amit :) thanks so much!
Anita (because blogger calls me 'unknown' sometimes!)

A.V.Raman said...

Great piece and education for calf bloggers like me. Your line " you stared st the same time for a few days and the world still carried on" is of high philosophical significance. Many times I have mused at certain pleasant/unpleasant events in my long life without realising that the world has moved a long way.
My blogs will now be easy on your eyes as the background has been changed. Please read my latest*Navarathri in New Delhi*

Shobna Iyer said...

I was feeling down
You made me laugh
I know it isn't much, thanks anyway

Anita said...

Thank you A V Raman Uncle. Shobna Iyer, some days a kind word feels like a big fat wedge of Black Forest cake - so thank you!