The familiar aspects of time

D. N. Bezboruah

Talking about time is risky business because there are different aspects of time that are within the understanding of human beings, though not part of their experience. One aspect of time is having to deal with eternity. Whenever astronomers talk about the distance of planets, they talk not about hours, minutes and seconds, but about light years. Constellation X is so many light years away from constellation Y. This is the kind of time that we can only think of as eternity since calculating a distance that is a mere 20 light years away gets us into the kind of calculation where we are obliged to talk in terms only of zeros and that too in terms of 10-to-the-power something huge. The velocity of light in the CGS (centimetre/gram/second) system is 3 X 1010 cm per second or 30,000,000,000 centimetres per second. To calculate the distance of a light year, one would have to multiply 3 x 1010 by 60 x 60 x 24 x 365—the distance in centimetres that light can travel in one year. Not that all sources of light can travel that distance. But that distance represents a light year. What really happens in such situations is that we give up thinking of time and are really often trying in vain only to figure out the astronomical distances. After all, when someone is talking of one light year, the concept of time is not all that difficult since we are talking about a year—a year in which light will travel to a certain distance, filled with zeros that will go right out of the page we are working on. It is the magnitude of the distance that is awe-inspiring. But when scientists talk about a million light years we mentally give up the exercise of worrying about that kind of time as well—the kind of time that is beyond the experience of any living being. We arrive at the more simple equation of such time being eternity and leave the matter at that.

And yet, scientists and technologists are also in a position to divide time very efficiently and precisely. This has been one of my abiding sources of wonder. Take, for instance, the time clocked by sprinters in the Olympic Games. The time lag between the first and the second runner could be just 1/10th of a second. The judges only see that competitor X is just a foot or a few inches ahead of competitor Y at the finishing tape. It is only the clocks that tell them later on that the difference in timing between the two was just 1/10th of a second. Even more fasciting is how the shutter speeds are set for sophisticated cameras. For most of us, even a shutter speed of 1/500th of a second is mind-boggling. But there are sophisticated cameras that can take photographs of a drop of water displacing water in a shallow bowl in the form of a coronet as it falls. Such photographs are normally taken with cameras with shutter speeds of 1/8,000 of a second or even 1/10,000 of a second. How scientists and technologists are able to split a tiny second to 8,000 or 10,000 equal parts will ever remain a great wonder for me.

From such wondrous considerations of time, it becomes necessary to descend to the quotidian and familiar aspects of time that are measured by ordiry clocks and watches. We descend to the day-to-day compulsion to go by the clock and to keep time for our own needs and for the commitments that we make to others. People all over north India are generally bad at keeping time. They are much better at giving excuses for why they could not keep time. They have to do this several times a day. People in the south are much better at keeping time. And people who are able to honour their obligations of the clock are bound to be much more successful than those who cannot. After all, nothing can be done outside time, and that is why we have a saying that time is money. This is an unpleasant truth, especially for people who take pride in saying that they refuse to be ruled by the clock. While we might admire such brave statements and agree that everyone needs some time “to stand and stare” and even some time to waste on one’s favourite but unproductive pastimes, we cannot dispense with clocks and watches. We live in a world where everyone has to be ruled to a certain extent by the clock since the time of the day is the only way we have of answering the important question “When?”. We live in a world where one person’s failure to keep time can completely wreck the efforts of a whole team of workers working together in a factory or some enterprise of their choice. And even though our own society is not part of an industrialized world, the rules of industrialized societies still apply in respect of time. The simple realization that it is not enough just to wear a watch but that one needs to keep looking at it time and again to be able to be punctual and to honour one’s commitments in respect of time, has somehow not dawned on most people. Most of us in the Northeast are indeed very poor about keeping time. In any of the north-eastern States, it is difficult to find people who can keep the time that they settle on in making appointments. At the same time there are people who will land up an hour before an event so as not to be late. This is not punctuality. This is sheer waste of time. There is no dearth of people who wear expensive watches but are always unpunctual and guilty of wasting other people’s time. But there is no one to beat our ministers in the matter of wasting other people’s time. It is quite common for a minister to arrive at a meeting an hour-and-a-half after the announced time and to keep several hundred people waiting all that time. In other words, if 500 people attended that minister’s meeting the total waste of man-hours was 750. It is only in a country like India that ministers can arrogantly dare to waste 750 or more man-hours without any sense of guilt. In any civilized country such ministers would be hooted out of the auditorium, even if they were half-an-hour late. When a minister is known to be habitually late in attending public meetings, people would refuse to turn up at his meetings to listen to his nuggets of wisdom.

So precious is time in advanced industrial societies that almost all industries in such countries have done careful time-and-motion studies to find out the best sequence for assembly operations. Each operator/worker is placed in such a way that the sequence of the assembly operations is smooth and comprises linear movements without any need for going back in the sequence of operations. I remember visiting the factory of an industrialist once and on being told of the sequence of operations, asking him whether a simple repositioning of assembly stations would not result in better use of time. He thought over the matter, carried out the repositioning and rang up a week later to thank me for what was a better time-and-motion equation. Being a total layman in such matters, I was greatly bucked up by the fact that a very common sense suggestion should have led to substantial savings in the time of operations, and therefore, major fincial savings.

True, we do not pay for the time that is allotted equally to each individual, industrious or lazy—24 hours every day. If we do not do anything with the allotted 24 hours, there is no one to punish us unless there is a boss. But we punish ourselves. The one who does not work does not get to eat. He punishes himself. The time-is-money equation works only when we work and make our working time count. And those who wish to make the most of the 24 hours that they get every day look more frequently at their watches to make their time count. They also know how much time each daily activity like shaving, bathing, eating and getting to the office takes. That is why when they are in a tearing hurry and racing against time they know what items of their daily routine they have to skip or carry out much faster in order to be punctual. For instance, one can cut the time of a careful shave that takes about six minutes and get down to a fast shave that can be done in two minutes flat. The crux of day-to-day time magement is that it is far more important to be looking frequently at one’s watch than just wearing a fancy one.  Also that one can live on borrowed time, and that no one is going to ask for repayments. But when we leave the world with many responsibilities undischarged, because we failed to use our time properly, someone else always has to pay for it.

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