By Harleen Kaur Bagga
Edited by Nandita Singh, Senior Editor, The Indian Economist
A study by Oxford University Press researchers declared that “time” was the most common noun in the English language, revealing an unmitigated fascination with the concept. Time, an elusive intangible reality, governs our everyday lives, from our sleep-cycles coupled with incessant angry alarm-clocks to meals and never-ending study-breaks. We perceive our time either mechanically or organically – the former embodied perfectly in a clock, with the latter manifesting in personalised subjective experiences. The mechanical understanding of time assumes a shared public space, while the subjective experience takes the shape of an extremely personal entity.
Antithetical to the predictable systematic tick-tock of the clock, our minds create an understanding of time which takes highly inconsistent forms. When you start for a vacation, the involvement of delirious anticipation makes time go slower, while the journey back, a return to the everyday mundaneness of life, seems annoyingly faster. Similarly, when you know the exam-questions well, time flies by, while it inevitably drags during those painful instances when the hand refuses to give the pen any commands. Furthermore, in again a highly arbitrary structure, we consciously or sub-consciously visualise time in our heads, with days of the week becoming seven successive steps in a cyclical space, and the months and years becoming etched in our memories depending on their correspondence with certain valuable events.
A particular song transports you to a time gone by as you inevitably recall associations made unconsciously by your brain. I remember going through someone’s photographs online, listening repeatedly to this one song. Quite unappealingly, a slideshow of those images now pays an unapologetic visit to me whenever I listen to that song. Music-memories this way become my own TARDIS, as they inexorably take me back in another dimension of my memory. Also, quite pleasantly and efficiently, songs serve the purpose of a clock, of light and darkness, indicating the duration of time as a particular song becomes embedded in your memory and you start measuring time accordingly.
However, are you really perceiving time, or are these only temporal relations which help you infer a sense of the minutes flying by? You see, you smell, you hear, you taste, and you feel different stimuli in the environment through your senses. Yet, do you in fact perceive (see, smell, hear, taste, feel, understand) time, or is it just an elusive entity? Hypothetically, if all these sense-faculties were to be withdrawn, you will still be able to gauge the passing of time. Your very thoughts which proceed from one to the other are indicative of a lapse in time, but then, what happens to a prisoner who stays inside a cubicle, surrounded by four monochromatic stifling walls? How does time pass for him? Does it not adopt a monstrous head in his brain or does he learn to become indifferent, coming to terms with the absurd reality of his life?
This time-memory engulfs our lives, with time pressing upon us in every action we undertake, reminding us of our mortality as the clock ticks on. Is time then limited only to the experience of our lives, our histories, our consciousness, or is it ever-flowing? St. Augustine believed that past and future only existed in memory, due to their being non-existent entities that cannot be measured. However, when the mind ceases to be, does time stop too, or does it go on? Moreover, can time exist in a vacuum, divorced from space and consciousness?
The very structure of the clock embodies a spatialisation of time, with the three hands clicking along the twelve compartments. However, mind-time does not revolve around concrete spaces, instead occupying fluid positions in our lives which are influenced by our moods, constitution, concentration, and memory. Our engagement with time occurs along two experiential dimensions – the present and the past. We think about time as we experience it in a present reality, and we indulge in memories in a retrospective understanding of the past. This non-linear narrative that shapes our life takes intriguing turns when illustrated in literature and drama, adopting a stream of consciousness to delineate plot-lines.
Imagine, if you weren’t allowed the use of a clock, the sun, or the moon to measure time, would your internal pacemaker inform your body about the passing of time, making way for a “biological clock”? In 1962, Michel Siffre spent two months in an underground cave, devoid of any external time-cues. At the end of the experiment, even though he had completely lost track of time, his body still managed to maintain an internal clock of a little more than 24 hours.
So, how do we measure time? Do we measure winter through the calendar-time of November, December and January, or is it just a mapping of our perception of cold? Perceptions are subjective. What is your idea of dystopia might not correspond to mine; when you experience your dystopia, your time will be slower. However, for me, things will proceed as usual. Therefore, what is your time cannot be my time. Why then do we fit it into mechanical understandings, glancing constantly at the clock to compartmentalise our lives according to set-routines?
Can it be argued that we construct time because of an attempt at self-definition? Can we transcend time, surpassing the limiting mortality of the human-being and entering a sublime realm of awareness? We do, nevertheless, increasingly govern our lives along a mechanical structure with alarm-clocks, aimed at defining our time-usage, occupying precious spaces at our bed-side tables. This inherent need that humans exhibit to control time, to structure it, to create narratives of time-travel, and to surpass it, illuminates the immense control that time exercises over us. Kant claimed that time and space are man-made “institutions” which don’t really exist. However, grasping and infusing a certain meaning in life, a certain position in relation to the universe by our actions and narratives, impels us to continue weaving temporal narratives.
Harleen is an Art and Literature enthusiast, currently studying English lit at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi. She lives in a world of hyperbole and Homeric similes and is irrevocably in love with descriptive words. Quite fond of stationery, the smell of old books, and the Harry Potter fandom, she most unfortunately possesses a traitorous mouth and a natural propensity to fall into embarrassing situations.