Cultural observations: the concept of “India time”

DiA India volunteer David Carzedda reflects on the frustrations he felt when getting to grips with the subcontinent’s different attitude towards time – and how he came to cope with it.

Photo by Davide Carzedda

You’ve just arrived in India and a car is supposed to pick you up at 4pm – you find yourself sitting with the driver drinking chai at 5pm. You were told you would get to your next destination at about 7pm, but it’s past 8pm and you’re still not there. Someone was supposed to meet you at the other end, but they’re late and when they get there don’t even apologize. You set up a meeting with someone and they’re “not here, please come back in twenty minutes”.

Don’t worry, the whole of India is not trying to avoid you and nor do they think you’re an annoying foreigner who seems to be in a rush the whole time. The reality is that from a western perspective, Indians are always late. Or, at least, that is how we perceive their apparently non-existent sense of urgency. But why is this?

This summer I spent two months volunteering with DiA’s India partner Seva Mandir in Udaipur, Rajasthan, and I discovered what’s known as “India time”. During the first couple of days, I tried to settle down and take care of ordinary administration: unpacking, learning about accommodation, the kitchen… and setting up the internet. It was attempting to accomplish the latter that I came across my very first experience with Indian time.

It was nearly 5.30pm, and my internet connection was not working in the dormitory  building, just across the road from the office building. I didn’t think it would be a problem for the technician to come with me to the dormitory to check what was wrong with my internet, but I was wrong. He refused to come with me because it was raining and he told me that we could have had a look at it the next day. I tried to convince him that I needed my daily Facebook fix, but he remained adamant.

During the internetless days after that, I started to get into what my project was going to be. This involved mostly going to rural areas to interview local volunteers on the training they had received. In order to do that, I had to set up meetings and dates so I could conduct my interviews. But it was not as simple as I thought it would be.

In order to meet one of these volunteers, I had to speak to my report officer, who would then speak to a block officer, who would then speak to one or more volunteers, who would then agree to meet me. At the same time, I had to contact an interpreter who would accompany me to the countryside.

In practice, I had to meet my report officer, who would not meet me before 11am, which meant not to leave for the rural areas until the next day. Once in the block office, the block officer would be late, and once I would finally leave the block office to reach a volunteer in a village, I would find out that the volunteer was late too.

Since even transport such as buses were usually late or too full, or I would miss  them because my translator was usually late, I would eventually end up being late myself. This meant leaving before 7am to try and make it on time for a meeting set up for nine or ten that would eventually happen after lunch.

People did not seem to care about being on time, but they did not even seem bothered about me being late. After the first couple of weeks – by then my internet was eventually up and running – I had managed to arrange a meeting with two volunteers at the same time, but ended up being two hours late. When they saw me coming, instead of looking at me in annoyance for my delay, they greeted me with friendly smiles. There I was, after having complained about people not being on time for days, late, and I didn’t even know why.

So why is it that everything in India seems to go slower? Why is everyone so late all the time? Can it simply be that this is the way things are, and it is just really hard for us westerners to deal with, or could there be a better explanation?

In order to understand this, I should introduce the concept of time, which varies from culture to culture and it is not universal like we might think, and that is why it is so hard for us to understand how things work the way they do in culture like the Indian one.

The discipline which studies how time is managed is called chronemics. According to this discipline, time managing can be divided into two main parts: monochronic time, where each single activity corresponds to a single “slot” of time, which is limited and each thing has to be done in its time, and polychronic time, where time is tied up to situations: more things can be done at once as time is flexible and multidimensional.

In addition to this, time can be also divided into linear time and circular time: the first one is the newtoninan concept of time, which “flows” in one direction; the second one moves in a circle and recurs each time. The Indian concept of time, as in many other Asian cultures, is a circular one: there is not a single beginning or a single end, but things happen in a cycle. The Greeks and the Romans also had a cyclical concept of time, and it was only with Saint Augustine that linear time was accepted. On this basis, it is easy to understand how in this concept, the idea of punctuality is distorted. There is not a deadline that cannot be extended as life is full of unpredictable things that can happen.

Religion, as a big part of our culture, also has a big influence on how we perceive time. In the Bible there is a beginning (creation) and an end (apocalypse), whereas in Indian culture all is cyclic and an end can also be considered as a new beginning. People are supposed to follow their karman (rules of life) to accumulate positive karma in order to reincarnate into something better, and that is the most important.

As the Italian Dott. Ada Cortese puts it, the idea of time for Indian (and also Greek) philosophers was different from that of Saint Augustine, who considered the history of man to be unique and more important. For them it is rather the history of nature that happens again and again, where nothing is really new.

Or, as I put it, while we run around trying to finish things one by one before the apocalypse comes, Indians do many things at once, but without hurrying too much… because they will have time to do so in the future, or in another life, when more pressing matters will not stand in the way.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

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