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OP-ED: The possibility of time

  • Published at 03:27 am October 26th, 2021
clock alarm routine

It is difficult to define time. It is also impossible to do without it

Pal pal dil ke paas, tum rahti ho” 

A generation of moviegoers will recollect the poignancy of the corporate thriller hit Blackmail, captured in the refrain of a song from the treacle depths of Bollywood, and the manner in which Dharmendra in his fading avatar of sensitive romancer proceeded to destroy the equilibrium of beautiful and composed Rakhee. 

What may have been the accepted language of love in 1973 may evoke an embarrassed reaction in 2021, because in our hard-headed age, a serenade underpinned by the declaration that one’s lover lives in the heart for every moment of one’s existence runs the danger of being shattered by unplanned laughter. 

But the soppiness aside, little do we realize that this song contains our recognition as a civilization of the basic unit of that thing called time.

Time may be defined as “the measured or measurable period during which an action, process, or condition exists or continues.” It may also be considered as “a non-spatial continuum measured in terms of events which succeed one another from past through present to future”. 

Should the preceding attempts at explanation be a trifle esoteric, let us instead carve out for ourselves the contours of this intangible by applying the accumulation of human experience in this regard.

At its root, time is an essence, a property, unique to the cadence and motion of our world. Students of science and philosophy have attempted to confine this essence within the arithmetical straitjacket of the now universally-accepted decimal system. However, this desire for technical consistency and, indeed, constancy, militates against a rhythm devised by the forces of an inanimate nature.

Time varies with the revolution of the day, and the revolution of the day is dictated by the ways of the sun and the moon. From the perspective of puny humankind, the trajectory of the moon is measured in units of 24 hours, and its bright circumnavigation of the earth takes approximately 30 days. 

Our journey from sunrise to sunrise similarly constitutes a span of 24 hours, but the immensity of the voyage around the life-giver requires that we multiply the effort by twelve. On the diminishing end of the scale, the hour is divided into 60 minutes and the minute, in turn, into 60 seconds. Time can be as infinitesimal as it is enormous.

We therefore have a base of approximately 360 days to contemplate. And notwithstanding the accepted fallacy of four seasons, change in the elements occurs six times on the surface of the Earth, which means that the progression of seasons through the year occurs through six cycles each of approximately 60 days. The recurring theme of “sixty” is fascinating.

Proven observation, therefore, demands that our comprehension of time remain Earth-bound and that we measure everything in the backdrop of, in the context of, how long it takes us to revolve around the Sun.

The universe is in constant motion, which motion is powered by energy, that engine for constant change. Everything is thus subject to constant change, the rate and extent of which is measured by the concept of time. 

For science, to whom we turn to explain the hitherto unexplained, time is crucial because we must know when an event occurred and when it will again occur. We even measure distance by applying time, because if we did not, then we would not have the benefit of the unit of the light year which affords us a glimpse, however brief, into the magnitude of the surrounding universe. 

Predictability, forecasting, a reasonable understanding of trends and their consequences, for these and all natural occurrences, without the linear scale of invisible time, to comprehend these would be impossible.

Are we the only species concerned with, or rather affected by, the passage of time? The answer is, interestingly, in the negative. The pet dog knows when it needs to be fed, and will yawn into your face till you are jerked out of slumber to escort, reluctant and bleary eyed, the creature to answer the call of nature. 

The Siberian crane, in a graceful arrow of dense flight across the globe, knows when to take wing for warmer climes and the duration of the immense journey. Every species knows the cycle of seasons, just like every plant, silent and poised, knows when to burst forth with bloom. Indeed, the body clock, as it uniquely manifests in each living organism, is evolution’s way of telling time, and forms the basic milestones of our existence as life inexorably “ticks by.”

Ek pal, as per the philosophical lore of ancient India, is the time it takes for a human being to flutter his eyelids. Unconscious as the person himself may be of this reflex act, the flutter is the basic accepted node of measurement. And this moment in time, dear reader, despite its transience, carries much weight.

“I don’t have the time!” is the wail of a world in frantic and synthetic motion. But, dear reader, time may be all-pervasive in application simply as a measure of the progression of life, but intrudes and controls and entraps only if we permit it to. 

The search for livelihood may dominate the linear progression through the day, but there is nevertheless ample space to eat, sleep, indulge in recreation and spend precious minutes with the elderly parent in seated comfort and a shared sunset.

Take a moment, because time is indeed on your side.

Sumit Basu is a freelance contributor based in India.

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