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keerthik sasidharan

A Brief History of Time

A Brief History of Time

On December 1, 1881, the British governor of Bombay, James Ferguson, informed the residents of that city that from that day onwards, “Madras time shall be kept in all offices under the control of Government and shall be held to be the official time for all purposes.” Madras time was 40 minutes ahead of Bombay’s local time. What followed that decision was great acrimony, letter-writing campaigns, and newspaper editorials that bemoaned the rise of confusion over which time to follow where. Meanwhile, the Bombay Chamber of Commerce convinced the Bombay university to hold a referendum on whether the clock tower should display Madras or Bombay time. Predictably, there was no surprise. The vote was to show Bombay time and, like petty bureaucrats, the Ferguson administration cut off funds to light the clock at night for displaying “unofficial time”. It took nearly 44 years after the introduction of the Indian Standard Time in 1906 for the Bombay Municipal Corporation to finally agree to abandon its adherence to Bombay time and bring to an end the little-remembered ‘44-Year-Old Battle of the Clocks’.

Organizing society

That time itself has a history has a counter-intuitive ring to it. But, when a well-worn cliché such as ‘India is a country where different centuries coexist’ is employed by many Indians and foreigners, liberals and conservatives, what they are unwittingly doing is presenting a mental model of India wherein historical time becomes a way to organize society. According to this cliché, India is merely an assemblage of various historical moments placed contiguously, chock-a-block together, which, through some miracle, manages to function. In this view, Indians are merely stand ins for historical moments, human synecdoches if you will. However, most Indian lives belie such convenient metaphors.

Instead, many Indians derive their self-conceptions of who they are from a variety of strong and weak commitments towards different social institutions that arose in a variety of historical contexts.  From music to social order, from religious ideas to aesthetics — within each Indian, like in many old societies, there exist residues of centuries past. Thus, any description of Indian history is inextricably tangled up with the simultaneity of historical memories.  Viewed thus, most Indians are merely vessels into which different ‘time' pour, swirl, and ultimately coagulate to produce the viscous density of the present.  This process is granted the name of tradition and culture.  This, of course, is true of most people across the world. But unlike much of the secular West, where the urge to trace the present to the past has progressively dimmed as the 20th century coursed through, the Indian self-representations still search for, if not yearn and, in its absurd form even invent, lineaments of the past in the present.  This is, of course, not an Indian ailment, but we seem to suffer a particularly debilitating need to assert the imprimatur of age.  The downside of this need is the coarsening of our sensitivities to identify and study what is truly old and what is merely a case of self-deception.  

The study of time

Despite this importance of time in memory and historical self-representation, historians worldwide have been relatively slow to study the understanding of ‘time’ itself as a subject in human societies. This is even more pronounced in India. After some fascinating work in the late 1970s and mid-1980s by the German philosopher of history Reinhart Koselleck and the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur, the study of ‘time’ itself as a proper historical subject of enquiry ended up being eclipsed by the study of memory. Questions such as how does historical memory operate, what is sacralised in social memory, how does nostalgia take over societies, etc. became more prevalent.

However, the dynamics of how time inveigles itself into social imagination began to make a comeback in the English-speaking world thanks, in part, to the great historian Benedict Anderson’s landmark work Imagined Communities. Anderson noted that the rise and proliferation of modernity was marked by the transition from “a medieval conception of simultaneity-along-time” to ideas about “homogenous, empty time… measured by clock and calendar”. Thus, echoing Koselleck’s and Walter Benjamin’s work, what he suggested was that as modernity emerged, human instincts and institutions that understood time underwent a transformation.

Time, at least in European traditions, instead of being bookended between Creation and the Second Coming of Christ, now became more open-ended, agnostic, and homogeneous in its flow, sweep, and explanatory powers. Irrespective of your belief in religion or membership in a community of co-believers, modernity declared that individuals and societies belong in the same flow of time — each is subject to the same imperium of the clock wherein one second follows another. However, implicit in this interpretation, as the historian Dipesh Chakrabarty noted, is that if we are all swimming in the same river of time, some of us will need to be represented as ‘ahead’ and some ‘behind’. Those societies left ‘behind’, like India, he notes, will in turn described as having failed to “keep an appointment with its destiny” and thus are forever condemned to playing catch up with Europe. What follows are postcolonial complexes and reactionary efforts to compensate for 'falling behind'.  The result, arguably, is the proliferation of what V.S. Naipaul calls “mimic men” but also the willingness to use the ostensible age of one's tradition as a crutch to prop up our wobbly present.   

To understand the history of the modern Indian mind then is indistinguishable from learning how Indians understand historical memory and, more subtly, how their understanding of time itself has changed as they arrive late into the pageant halls of modernity. 


A version of this piece appeared in The Hindu on February 25th ' 2018. 

The Sounds of Silence

The Sounds of Silence

In praise of amateurs

In praise of amateurs