Sunday, December 10, 2006

Indian Stretchable Time Is About To Snap

Remember the days when inviting a politician meant that your function would be delayed by many hours because they would always be late? Well, it’s gone forever. I was at the India Economic Summit in Delhi last month and it was amazing to see how punctual all the ministers and bureaucrats were. Manmohan Singh, Sonia Gandhi, Chidabmbaram, Kamal Nath, Kapil Sibal, Nitish Kumar, Vasundhara Raje Scindia, Vilasrao Deshmukh, Sheila Dixit, Montek Singh Ahluwalia. All were on the stage at the precise moment that they were meant to be. Not just once, but across all functions spread over three days. Of course, the sundry bureaucrats who were also at the event had no choice once their bosses were so punctual.

It made me think. Whatever happened to Indian Stretchable Time?

Is this just a stray incident, meant to impress the foreigners who were at this conference? Is this the effect of the globalization of India? Or is this a far more fundamental change in Indians?

Then another incident caught my eye. My son is 14 years old. His day consists of going to school, attending tuitions, going for tennis coaching, watching TV. All these activities happen at precise times. His school bus arrives at 6.20 AM. His tuition is at 2 PM. His tennis coaching is from 4 PM. There is not a moment to lose. If he is late in one activity, then it affects the next. No time to waste. No time to be late.

My son may not grow to be a politician. But clearly he is going to be as punctual as our ministers are today. Happiness!

This business of ministers being punctual has another special significance. India is a hierarchical country and one way to show that you are more important than the others is to be more late than everyone else. Therefore the minister had to be really late since it showed he is the most important.

But in the new India, ministers are no longer the undisputed bosses that they used to be. These ministers today wine and dine and fuss over industrialists to invest in their state. So suddenly the old hierarchies are breaking down and there is much greater equality than there used to be.

I am a Virgo who has a bee in his bonnet about being punctual. For a long time this has been considered a major flaw in my character. I have arrived at parties only to get glares from my host which softened only when I offered to help them set up for the party. I have had colleagues wonder if I had no work at all – how else could I be so punctual? I have suffered ulcers when my bosses (this term includes my wife) have made me late.

And I have always despaired about this thing they call Indian Stretchable Time.

But now I have hope. Suddenly things seem to be changing. We have all begun to cram our lives more. We all have much tighter schedules. So we can’t afford to be late. This attitude is starting at a young age.

Does this mean that everyone is being punctual? Of course not. Nothing ever changes so quickly. But the trend is clear. More and more people are demanding punctuality. Because they are busy. Because they are more equal. Because that is just the new way. Those who don’t fall in line are suddenly going to discover that they are outdated – a part of the “old guard”. People who didn’t quite get it. Sort of like someone who still uses a typewriter and doesn’t know what a blog is.