Why do Indians wear watches? Only for fashion, I’d say. Because, Indians have their own concept of time. Punctuality seems to simply not be a value for them. Time indeed is a flexible commodity for many of us in India. Those growing up in this country will be very familiar with the IST equivalent that is prevalent here, which makes up the title of these musings. A large majority of Indians do not seem to operate on the 24-hour-a-day concept but on the idea that time stretches on forever. Plans are provisional and standard reply to any given question is ‘five minutes’ or ‘tomorrow’ given the situation. When will you arrive? “In five minutes”. You could very well be in Timbaktoo while typing this. When are you taking us shopping? “Tomorrow”. Wives and kids, sounds familiar, eh!
Most relationships, whether personal or professional, are governed by this notion and people are expected to be flexible enough to accept delays on the part of others; be it at family gatherings or other interactions.
This is both relaxing and infuriating. Relaxing because of the flexibility and infuriating because of the highly unprofessional approach and attitude.
What Do We Blame It On?
Another game besides cricket that Indian loves is the blame game. So just whom do we blame this on? In India, ‘fashionably late’ is safely replaced with ‘predictably late’. Cow blockades, politician escorts, and cratered roads, compound the problem and offer a valid excuse. So when you reach half-an-hour after the appointed time, you don’t explain yourself. It is understood. Anything beyond that may require an explanation.
Another reason, and a reason not an excuse, is the mobile phone. Thinking back on pre-mobile phone days, it is possible that people were compelled to be more punctual. The mobile phone is certainly an invention that has contributed to the lack of punctuality in people, but it also has its uses. At least, it helps to keep those who are waiting informed that the expected guests will be a little late.
Of course, it has also served to fuel dishonesty in people, besides making people lazier. Today, nobody wants to note down a complete set of directions anymore. It is always, “I will call you from the first landmark and then you can guide me to the second one,” so on and so forth!
Those of us who have had the exposure of a very organized society, find it extremely hard to adjust to the Indian work culture. One of the common pet peeves is the lack of respect for other people’s time. But there are many around you who would nonchalantly remind you that “You are in India”. While one takes this with a pinch of salt, should we be so casual about it? The biggest difference seen in the world cultures between the West and India is their attitudes towards time and the value they put on it. The western attitude to time is much more organized and much more linear compared to our own very flexible attitude toward punctuality which tends to undervalue both our own time and the time of others. No doubt when foreign companies come to India they grapple with how to enforce their culture and indigenous respect for time.
But, There’s A Bright Side
Yet it is hard to impose such a foreign concept on what has grown up as our own very unique system of time-keeping and time-managing. And all the more difficult, given our large numbers and diverse country. And, while we could definitely stop the routine 30 minutes late for an appointment, because that is just rude, our approach to time has its advantages. It is a boon to have employees who are willing put in extra time doing the work needed. Drivers till couple of years ago never knew what ‘extra time’ is. They would drive you around as and when call of duty demanded so. Retail employees often go an extra mile during festive days. Their time stretches to wee hours just to ensure that the company meets its festive purchase season targets. All across India, it is mandatory to offer a guest in your office tea and coffee even if it’s the last meeting of the day. Agendas are rarely set in a meeting because the actual work is done between the lines in a conversation. How much would we miss if we all stuck by the clock?
But if we can adher to timelines in school, or when taking a flight, we can do so in other situations too.