Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
From the publishers of THE HINDU

MILLENNIUM : January 23, 2000

Mapping a timescape: understanding ourselves


As a person who has not been bitten by the "millennium" bug, I was a little hesitant to write an article for this issue; nevertheless, I felt that it was a good moment to review one's concept of time itself. Why are people excited by the thought of the millennium? Time has the property of continuity. Its discontinuity is a human construct: the measurement of time necessarily provides time with its discontinuities. It is the summation of these apparent discontinuities that restores a sense of eternity to time and gives it the quality of flowing, which poets like to call "timelessness." Seconds, minutes and hours, days, weeks, months and years, decades, centuries and millennia! Ah, lets stop there to take a breath. This millennium. Or rather, the last year of the second millennium - the year 2000. The new millennium starts only in 2001, as Arthur Clarke and several others have pointed out. But the all pervasive and ubiquitous computers demand our immediate attention because of the Y2K problem, which in turn originated from the fact of indicating a year by its last two digits and programming that! And then there are the hyped-up millennium offers propelled by commerce: the five star hotels and the luxury liners have already reaped a harvest from the magical mystery tours offered to the compliant ones! And the world moves inexorably towards the next millennium.

Our measurement of time is totally a function of the position in the cosmic system of planet Earth, which is a part of the solar system. Our circadian rhythm is caused by the earth's rotation on its own axis, our seasons by the fact of our revolution round the sun. The sun is central to all living creatures on this planet, to life itself. It seems natural that our ancestors marked their existence by the sun and made one day the unit of time, dividing that into 24 hours of 60 minutes each. The numbers carry some intrinsic property of solar time itself. For instance, in the traditional Tamil measurement of time, there are 60 units (60 Nazhis) of 24 minutes each. So, its either 24 units of 60 minutes or 60 units of 24 minutes. Sunlight and its absence divide the day into two parts exactly on the Equator and with variations according to the latitude and the hemisphere, in the rest of the globe. But wherever we live, we are inextricably linked to the diurnal rhythm. As we know from several scientific studies, experimental blocking in a laboratory, of access to the day/night alternation creates problems and confusion in the people who are the subjects of experiment. They tend to get disoriented to identity, space and time when deprived of the circadian rhythm.

Surya, cosmogram.

Traditionally, we have also been closely linked to the circumlunar pattern. For instance, the waxing and waning of the moon are salient for agriculture, rite and ritual. Bio-rhythms are conceptualised as being homologous with cosmic rhythms and the latter are built into the culture of food as well. Even today, in many Indian homes, fasting and feasting are related to the phases of the moon. Thus the skies become the shared almanac of the people of the world, with the sun and moon serving as visible time markers. I think that it is in this perceived, or perhaps only subtly sensed, relationship to the cosmos, that clock time and calendar time assume significance.

When we celebrate the birthday of a child it is at once a thanksgiving for the child's arrival in our midst and a message that the child has value for us. When we ushered in the New Year at midnight, at the cusp of the old and the new, it was with the magical hope of a new beginning. When one considers the plans made for the midnight of December 31, 1999, around the world, one cannot escape the feeling that there was a high level of magical thinking in a large number of rational people. The need for social conformity could have been one reason for the rush to book the most exotic facilities on islands and mountain tops, to welcome the millennium, but there is the more likely explanation that people genuinely think that the exact moment of ushering in the next thousand years, is of great personal importance. It appears that the magic-cosmic world is a part of the collective unconscious of humankind and at some points in our life, we do retrieve it.

Time-space is an anagram of Timescape - and I shall now slide gently into an open-ended space to arrive at a comprehension of understanding ourselves. Our sense of space and the spatial concept also gives us some insight into our understanding of people and cultures different from us. We tend to have stereotypes of people who are distant (geographically or culturally) from us. We are able to summarise their characteristic traits and treat them as one sort of person. At the same time, one is unwilling to be told that there is an exact resemblance between oneself and one's sibling. In our own group, we even see the fine differences, while in the other, the "outsiders," we see the similarities. One perceives the variations in one's own group and sees far larger populations at a distance, as one homogeneous group (The Chinese, The Americans and so on).


It is helpful to use the concept of "fractales" introduced about two decades ago by Mandelbrot. Stated simply, the application of this organic, non-geometric form is to the proximity-distance continuum. From a distance, the coastline is smooth; the closer one moves, the more jagged and irregular it is. In actual mileage, the coastline is much longer. What is accepted as its length is a convention smoothed out by serial surveys and terrestrial approximations. The situation is similar when cultures are described by social scientists.

In summing up the typical behaviour of another people, we use gross approximations. Diplomats may be trained to deal with some of them, and social scientists to analyse them, but the stereotypes persist. One of the most persistent examples of the other is the West-Western culture, its peoples, its science, its certainty. We, the East, the people of India, have a magic-cosmic approach, favour intuitive knowledge, and are inadequate managers of our resources. Or so some stereotypes would go. For second thoughts on this I offer a visual.

People tend to look amorphous when looked at with disinterest; they "become individuals" when we are interested in them. Thus, psychological distance parallels geographical distance in this phenomenon of "blurring".

Comprehending the concept of the globe for the first time was one of the excitements of childhood: if one moved in one direction long enough, one would arrive at its opposite. The other way of going Westwards is to go Eastwards for a longer duration. Getting where one wants to go is the same thing as knowing when to stop. Recent books on the frontiers of science merge into the metaphysical systems usually associated with Eastern religions, while transcendental meditation takes to laboratory and logarithm. The facts of science edge gently into speculation and the intuitively known stands the test of electronic hardware. I sit now in the guard van of this train of thought, watching the parallel lines receding fast, until in the distance they become a single line, curving into space.

In understanding people and cultures, one can also use music as metaphor. Years ago, when a friend reacted with obtuseness to a personal problem I had articulated, I was disappointed. I remember that I calmed myself with a musical metaphor. I said to myself "How can I expect him to hear Thodi or Bhairavi when he can only hear the eight notes in the octave, played on the keyboard? The half tones and the quarter tones, the gamakas just disappeared and were approximated to the simplistic set of notes that could be played on a piano or casio. The metaphor provided the clarification I needed: the superimposition of a simple taxonomy on a complex one yields only an illusion of understanding. To extend the metaphor, one must have some understanding of the aspects of the complexity of the other's culture, before being able to communicate with some confidence.

This computer generated image is an example of fractal geometry. Fractals are characterised by basic patterns that repeat at whatever size they are viewed. They are relevant to the study of chaos theory.

For another example of cross-cultural insight, I extend the musical metaphor. The memory of the first orchestra I attended at Philadelphia surfaced to consciousness. I sat there absorbing everything avidly, a combination of an ethnographer at his first community ritual and a child at a long-promised puppet show. The formalisation of the structure of the relationships of the various instruments, the first violinist's role, the dramatic entry of the conductor, Eugene Ormandy, the music resounding in harmony and the split-level patterning of the major themes - all of it was a tremendous experience. And then I realised that the music was set once and for all, and improvisation was not only impossible, but would have been a violation of the rules, I concluded then that the rendering of Western music depended only on mastery and competence and there was no room for the kind of creativity and individuality of Indian music. It was only over a period of years, listening to friends discussing various renditions, and several evenings of music on the record player, that I began to have a feeling that there was variation, but within a narrow range. Even though the most authoritarian family is much less structured than an orchestra, it does seem likely that a Westerner confronting a hierarchical and formal set of relationships in the Indian family infers that the individual has no scope for an original thought or act. It is only patient familiarity and close observation that will reveal the subtle differences that count and the nuances that reflect the quality of life even in an apparently constrained situation.

Understanding ourselves, understanding others! The first is a necessary condition for the second, which probably explains why there is so much misunderstanding prevailing. A study of families, in the context of their child rearing and other parenting functions, over the last three decades has led one to the conclusion that there are not many opportunities in everyday routines for parents and children to spend time talking about problems as they arise. Indian families, on the whole, tend to give very little time for introspection, discussion or debate about ideas, thoughts, feelings. There are rules and instructions, family values and the codes to be maintained, but what is stated is simple, in black and white. No greys here. There are instances of some members of the family wandering about in an unarticulated grey area. But verbalisations of doubt, questions and challenges are generally disallowed, as would freedom slogans in a colonised country.

To lighten the impact of intra-familial differences (lighten in both meanings: to enlighten and to make lighter) in everyday life, I offer a musical inventory. When a family lives and works together in harmony, their activities are well orchestrated. Suddenly the trumpet may blare, not stopping when its score is over and outplaying all the rest. I am sure every reader can recognise and recall such an episode in the family. At other times, the conductor of the orchestra leaves the room in disgust and the instrumentalists who know only their own roles, have to find a coherence. Mothers who retire into a vow of silence to express their anger or simply retire to their rooms, to fast, are not unknown in our experience.

Parental instruction to young children on combing their hair or completing homework is often in Junta Varisai - everything is repeated twice! In formal dining, everyone has to eat at the same pace. Sometimes, a child who is in a hurry to see a favourite TV programme, may speed up his eating and it is like singing at Irandam kalam, double the speed. Another example. At the birthday celebration of a respected matriarch, one grandchild could be sulking because her clothes are the wrong colour. This is like an instrument going out of tune (sruti). The sruti would have to be set right, as the child must be consoled by gentle counselling. A discussion of an important subject by two persons is a jugalbandhi, with a balanced and interesting sawal-jawab. But if one of them dominates, without giving the other person time to respond appropriately, there is only dissatisfaction on all sides. It is not difficult, I would imagine, for us to recall such "duets" at our family gatherings!

Kamal Sahai

Some gifted people and practised musicians have absolute pitch i.e. they know what sruti to take, without reference to a sruti box. Singers without much experience tend to start a song on too high or too low a note, while we, who listen, flinch at their attempts to reach the unreachable. The parallel in family functions and observances, where the pitch is too high to start with, can be easily seen.

One can go on with more examples, but it would be fun to make one's own inventory. Making metaphors would yield clarity; it would also provide a touch of humour, sometimes verging on the comical, to our handling of routine problems. In this mapping exercise to understand ourselves, one comes to the realisation that in life, as in music, harmony, balance, cooperation, a sensitive listening ear and valuing both sound and silence are of the essence.

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