On time

Our rat was considerably more dead.
Our rat was considerably more dead.

We must begin, first of all, with the matter of the dead rat.

Two days ago, I was sitting with Priya in what they call a “hall” around here, which is not to be confused with a hallway. A “hall” is also not a large public meeting place such as you might rent out from the Veterans of Foreign Wars. No, a “hall” is a livingroom.

So I was sitting in the livingroom-cum-hall. Priya was going into the kitchen for something, probably to mix a fresh drink, as she’s a practicing alcoholic—despite her inexplicable dry days.

But she stopped in the doorway, and something about her posture suggested fear. “What is it?” I said, “What happened?”

Well, she told me, they had had two rats living nicely in the kitchen—these aren’t very tidy people, and their untidiness is most evident in the kitchen. They’d killed one of them before I’d come, and this was the second one. They had poisoned him, and he was now in his death throes in the middle of the floor.

And she went to fetch her father to deal with him, but by the time he came, the rat had disappeared again.

Yesterday, my room began to smell, and I began to surmise that he had found his way into my room and finished his business of dying there. Then I realized the smell was even worse in the kitchen. He must have stayed there and died.

I relayed this to Uncle #2. “Uncle,” I said, “That rat has died in the kitchen.”

“The maid will come in the afternoon. She’ll take care of it.”

This being India, I had my doubts. However, you should also imagine that I told him this at seven in the morning. The maid comes at three.

And I was right. The maid came and went. The kitchen still smelled. The rat was obviously still there. So, again, I told Uncle #2. “The rat is still there.”

“The maid said it wasn’t.”

“It is.” I began to look for it.

This turned out to be very easy. There’s a cupboard door that has come off in their kitchen, and it lies sideways across the lower half of the open cupboard. I lifted this in order to begin searching through the cabinet where the smell was most clearly coming from. The rat was there.

“She’s crazy,” Uncle  #2 said, meaning the maid.

“No,” I said, “Lazy,” because it’s actually never entirely clear that she’s cleaned much of anything.

I think this whole incident says something about various attitudes about time—including mine—and also suggests some misconceptions.

In my Western, everything needs to be done now mind, a dead rat in the kitchen is an emergency. The cockroaches are too, if you want to bring that up, but it’s not my kitchen and for now I can live with them. I just avoid too much contact with the dirty counters and the filthy gas range.

But in Uncle #2s mind, this could wait. Time was not of the essence. Time is rarely of the essence, in fact, anywhere in India. It is what has been referred to as a non-linear culture, meaning people don’t queue in most places and most things take place about 20 minutes behind schedule. I once waited an hour for a friend to pick me up for lunch. He came. I’m not kidding about this.

aurangabad stationI’ll tell you another story. This happened twenty years ago. I was just a kid, and this was my first trip to India, but it was at the tail end of the sojourn. I was heading back to the States in a matter of days.

I had gone to see some caves near Aurangabad. They are quite something really. You should see them. At any rate, my flight was out of Delhi, but Aurangabad is in Maharashtra and there’s not really a direct route between them. So, I was passing through Bombay—which in those days might really have been Bombay rather than Mumbai. The change in name was at least recent.

And although I had come on the bus to Aurangabad, I had booked a train back. The problem was that I had lost my ticket, and in my panic to find it, I also reached the station late. Not after the train was scheduled to depart, but without enough time to settle any problems. Like lost tickets.

On top of that, if I remember right, this was a train that did not come frequently. Perhaps it came once a week, or only every other day. I’m not sure about that part. But I do recall that if I had missed that train, I would also have missed the train back to Delhi from Mumbai/Bombay and consequently my flight.

Needless to say, I was a bit in a state when I went to speak to the stationmaster about the matter of my lost ticket. He wasn’t in. He was having his dinner or his tea or hadn’t left his house. This part is again rather vague. But there was an office full of employees of various kinds—white collar, sweepers, peons (as they call them). They all took an interest in my lost ticket. And in various polite ways told me to calm down—including sharing out a half cup of tea with me. There was plenty of time, they told me.

Which there was. The train was about four hours late. It might have been six.

And I think for some of us who aren’t familiar with all of this, we might take this for a generally relaxed attitude. But it isn’t. It is a relaxed attitude about time. Just as the rat was not an emergency, neither was my train ticket. The rat wasn’t going to come back to life and walk itself out of the kitchen. It would remain there nicely until someone finally found it. And the train was late in any case.

But my experience with Indians is that they are no less stressed than anyone else, that most Indians are worried about something most of the time. There is often some kind of inter-personal conflict that has to be addressed.

Now, I haven’t met all of India. So it’s entirely possible that I’ve managed to land myself repeatedly in the midst of worriers and nail-biters. But I have heard about inadequately treated rheumatoid arthritis from a young woman with a young child–a fresh acquaintances–on the train, and about a middle-aged man’s wife dying of cancer at a café, and a friend’s almost-tragic love story. (An arranged marriage, she fell in love with the wrong arranged suitor.) And last week I saw two men very nearly come to blows (there was shoving, but no hitting) over a motorcycle fender-bender.

Life is stressful. It’s stressful everywhere. That seems to be the nature of life.

What I saw was only a fender bender. This would have led to a brawl.
What I saw was only a fender bender. This would have led to a brawl.

But it is perhaps doubly stressful when healthcare standards are not quite up to par, when you live in a slum or are dependent on someone’s labor who lives in a slum (because slums are periodically destroyed and their tenants evicted), and a lot of things just don’t work or they work for a while and then break. Oh, and then there’s the matter of weather and the fact that most of the year, in most places, it is either raining like mad or hotter than hell.

So my India is not a chilled out place. It’s a place where everyone everywhere is hustling, because getting by requires that. It requires hustle. And where a lot of things must be fought over in order to get anything done. This may be the case only in cities, but a lot of India lives there.

In fact, I would venture to speculate that the reason India has brought us meditation and yoga is not that it is such a relaxed, chilled-out, easy place to live. They have brought the world ways to relax simply because they needed some way to cope.