Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Most Punctual Man in India

Gandhi’s legendary punctuality had a utilitarian imperative—without it he would never have been able to answer the sacks of letters and streams of visitors that demanded his attention each day. But, as with everything he valued, it had a moral imperative as well. Simply put, time was tied to his philosophy of trusteeship: the belief that just as we do not own our wealth but are trustees of it—and thus have to use it wisely—similarly, we are trustees of our time. “You may not waste a grain of rice or a scrap of paper, and similarly a minute of your time,” he wrote. “It is not ours. It belongs to the nation and we are trustees for the use of it.” Consequently, any abuse of time was unethical. “One who does less than he can is a thief,” he wrote to a friend. “If we keep a timetable we can save ourselves from the last-mentioned sin indulged in even unconsciously.” While this focus on punctuality may portray Gandhi as skittish and anxious, the opposite was true: a timetable allowed him to give the issue at hand his tranquil and undivided attention.


Gandhi was fighting a losing battle. Indians have a notoriously relaxed attitude toward punctuality, and as the national joke goes, the abbreviation IST (for Indian Standard Time) should really stand for Indian Stretchable Time. One reason proffered is that the approach to time is fundamentally different. Unlike the Western linear sense of time, Hindu philosophy treats time as cyclical, a concept succinctly illustrated by the sameness of the Hindi word for yesterday and tomorrow—kal. As Salman Rushdie jokes in Midnight’s Children, “No people whose word for yesterday is the same as their word for tomorrow can be said to have a firm grip on time.” But Rushdie also parodies the relentlessly accurate tick-tock of the clock as an “English-made” invention. A similar observation was made by the writer Ronald Duncan, who visited Gandhi’s ashram in 1937. Duncan wrote: “I shall always remember the anachronism of the large cheap watch which dangled on a safety-pin attached to his loincloth: worn this way, time itself appeared to be a toy, an invention of the Western mind.”


On the evening of January 30, 1948, he was so engrossed in a meeting with India’s new home minister, Sardar Vallabhai Patel—who was Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s rival—that he forgot the time. His great nieces, Manu and Abha, who were tasked with alerting him, held back, knowing how anguished he was by the rift between his two protégés. When they finally screwed up the courage to interrupt, he rose quickly, went to the bathroom, and then headed out. The interfaith prayer meeting was a crucial form of outreach through which Gandhi met the public and tried to calm the fissile atmosphere in Delhi. The capital of a newly independent India had been engulfed in savage Hindu-Muslim riots and only a fast by Gandhi had stopped the bloodletting. Upset, he hurried forth, saying, “It irks me if I am late for prayers by even a minute.” Minutes later, he was dead, as was his watch—not at “around five” or “five-ish,” but at 5:12, a chronometrically precise salute to the man who loved time

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