Thursday, March 12, 2009

Approximately Inaccurate ......अंदाज़पंचे ....

For a country that is supposed to have bequeathed the world the concept of zero, and students with great mathematical proclivities , we thrive on being knowingly inaccurate at times, to such an extent, that sometimes I wonder, if, maybe we picked up the inaccurate-gene or something, at some point in the vast migrations that took place across continents, aeons ago....

Driving on a long distance trip out of state, and we are only just waking up to the fact that one can bypass cities on the way, which are not your destination. City bypasses are being constructed, where earlier one traversed the city.

There was a time, when one suddenly found oneself entering a city, and before you knew it you were in the middle of downtown. Most signboards were so old, they were covered with creepers descending across their faces. If there happened to be a signboard you could read, it was always possible that the road it showed was extinct. Sometimes, a new road came up out of sheer population ingenuity, and when you tried to smartly take a left turn, you were suddenly faced with two roads on your left.

The smart thing to do then, was to slow down, stop and ask rickshaw driver. Nine times out of 10, he'd say something like, "go straight". When you'd ask "how far", they'd always say " Oh, it's 1 or 2 "furlongs", in an unintended dramatic defiance of the metric system. What is interesting is that regardless of the actual distance of the road leading out of the city (from downtown) , it's always 1 or 2 furlongs.

So you kind of meander through the city, take unintended turns here and there, and in general get to see a new city. Every city in India is different. There is no concept of avenues and streets gracefully cutting each other at right angles, and a main road meandering through the centre. Shops are not always necessarily on the main road. They could be almost anywhere.

Sometimes you'd see a heritage bungalow (where the occupants themselves didn't know they were heritage types), happy in the fact that their grandfather built the house brick by brick and each room had a story to tell; and they were least bothered about the golden arches of McD coming up right next to them. You suddenly came across an imposing ancient looking temple, and if you had parents along with you, a stop there was guaranteed. Someone would get talking to someone while coming out of there, post-worship , and a well informed gent would give you better instructions, complete with traffic circles, significant signs and structures on the way, where not to stop , etc etc.

Back in 1977, on a car trip from North Kerala ( a narrow north-south expanse) down to the tip of India, we just kept driving mile after mile, furlong after furlong , entering and leaving cities, interspersed with fields, weekly bazaars, that merged from one city into another, and before we knew it, we were at the confluence of the Arabian Sea, Indian Ocean , and Bay of Bengal.

I think things have improved considerably on the main highways, but still remain happily unchanged in the small inland rural areas.

In a connection that would have the late Albert (Einstein to you) rejoice, we Indians also extend the principle of vast inaccurate approximation, to time. Even if it naturally doesn't, we dilate time. Relatively.

Millions of jokes are cracked based on Indian Standard Time. You are considered close to foolish if you land up accurately on time. It means if you are invited for a wedding reception at 7 pm, you go around 8.30 pm, unless you want to arrive before the bride and the groom. Most shameless types have redefined this as Indian Stretchable Time.

Except for movies, TV programs, , train and bus departures ,and examinations, most things happen on IST. I was going to include airline departures, but people have been known to sit in planes only to find out they are at their departure point 2 hours later, thanks to some dignitaries flying in and out, and being pushy about it.

If you are invited somewhere at 8 pm for dinner, its always advisable to eat at home at 8 pm and saunter in at 10 pm. You will still be early for the actual dinner. Sometimes a persons status is directly proportional to how late he can arrive for functions. And still be early.

This is particularly chronic amongst people in the performing and political arts.

But like Dirt, which is suddenly coming into the limelight as a useful thing , thanks to research in Universities, this "inaccurate" mode of time and space definition, has unexpected benefits.

Sometimes , it is unusually beneficial to be inaccurate.

The recent Mumbai Carnage terrorists, were supposed to have trained on Google Earth, and familiarized themselves with the Mumbai terrain that they were to function in. Reports have it that they memorized the roads and byways.

In a city with great and accurate road distribution, clearly defined street names and the like, Google Earth would have been a boon.

But Mumbai has a proclivity for frequently digging up roads, creating diversions, and , changing existing road names , particularly if they have a connotation with something Royal and British. And names of places that bore the names of Albert and Victoria, have been changed with great alacrity to names of Indian Freedom fighters. The city-of-Mumbai's population, also has a proclivity for creating newer pathways, by sheer persistent large volume human usage, with a fine disregard for municipal rules, and realization of slow monitoring by authorities.

The two terrorists who killed hundreds at the CST Railway station in South Mumbai, escaped from there and emerged on to what they thought was a road to the police headquarters (as per their e-training on Google Earth), but actually ended up on a back entry road to a big municipal hospital.

Their plans had to undergo a quick change, and the sudden arrival of the police, panic shooting and takeover of vehicles, forced the two terrorists to take off and drive, on whichever roads that occurred through their windscreen.

That these actions led to a roadblock on the sea face is well known , but one of the biggest benefits, of the confusion, caused by things not being accurate as Google Earth, was, that one terrorist was caught alive, something that was not intended to be so. And that he was overpowered , not by an accurate rifle shooter, but by a brave heart middle aged policeman, who jumped on him, covered his weapon with himself, and wrestled the guy to the floor. The brave policeman was posthumously awarded the country's highest award in January. The terrorist, awaits his trial in jail.

Today the confession of this lone terrorist has pointed fingers in various significant directions
. And a charge sheet has been filed.

But we are funny people.

We are achingly accurate where not required.

Kasab, the lone surviving terrorist and his dead colleagues are being prosecuted for 12 crimes, among which are , serious stuff , like waging war against India, murder of 169 people, terrorism, destruction of property, conspiracy, weapons and immigration violations.

Somewhere in the 5000 page charge sheet, lies a crime included for the sake of accuracy .

Entering the Railway platform concourse without a valid ticket. ........

That's tough.

As they say, "What to do ? We are like that only ......"


  1. My dad says furlongs all the time!

    OK, I'm going to stop saying 'thoughtful' post from now on, because all your posts are thoughtful. Love the way you weave disparate strands into a nice story.

    That story about the charge for entering a platform withougt a valid ticket reminds me of the movie The Firm, in which terrible people who did terrible things were put away because they had committed mail fraud! I wonder if they asked Kasab to produce his platform ticket though, the minute they caught him. Amazing presence of mind if they did.

  2. Kai karaycha.. amhi asech ahot.

    We are members of Indian Classical music society. Every program is supposed to start at 7.00. Sagli gori mandali agadi welechya adhi yeoon khurchit basleli astat but because the "hall is not full", the artistes are still on their way, the sound system is still not set right, etc etc. the program starts at around 7.30. To top that you have late comers disturbing everybody. The venue has to be vacated at sharp which means either the intermission is cut short or the musical program.

    It happens everytime.

  3. Your arrival times would have driven my late husband insane. He was a stickler for being on time. If we were five minutes late he would be grumpy. One time we were invited to an open house and the host met us at the door brushing his hair trying to get ready. I was most embarrassed.

    Your post is, as always, extremely interesting and well written.

  4. Very interesting indeed. And all this one has experienced.

    You must write about the expectoional tolerance of we Indians who allow such nonsense to go on and suffer quietly.

    Quite obviously Terrorists had not done their homework. Some residents of a station just ahead of Kalyan take CST-Masjid and Kalyan-UN tickets to effectively guard against such petty charges while travelling Masjid-Kalyan without ticket!


  5. As much as there is so much of road digging and drains overflowing, there is equal tolerance of such !

    So much so, when the next road is dug up, one tries to find out how to circumvent the traffic jam !

    And yes, if it gets a little uncomfortable in our minds..we have a standard answer : We are like this only !

    Thereby, getting a divine right to remain where we are !

  6. I get so mad when people don't respect others' time. But i have stopped caring about such insensitive people now. I give them a taste of their own medicine by not caring to be on time to meet them.

    Btw traveling in India, stopping at places to take directions, can be frustrating sometimes but I have always enjoyed it. You get to know a lot of interesting places on the way rather than just driving with a GPS in US and waiting only at rest areas.

  7. Oh God, this is such a 'timely' post for me. Only in our country is TIME a relative term. What is 1 o clock to 2 to someone else.

    Puncutality can be a major cause of heart disease in our country. I am therefore almost sure I'll have a stroke one day HOPING that someone will arrive on time.

    Sigh...we are like that vonly!

  8. I was just saying that to myself when I read your last line..sometimes it seems like laughing over it, sometimes I wonder if we are being laughed at ...

  9. This was interesting for understanding cultural differences. When we drove to the East Coast of the United States one year, it amazes us to find roadsigns didn't tell us what street we were on but only the cross streets. I guess they assumed if you lived there, you knew it and maybe nobody who didn't live there was supposed to be there. They also would have roadsigns to towns telling how many miles but never the closest ones; so you better have a good road map with you, long before Google, of course.

    On the being on time, I grew up in a house where you were on time or else. When Dad said he was leaving, the car better have us all in it or it was likely he'd go without us. I pretty much am an on time person even today but married into a family where time was more relative. I am not sure if that came from them being born and raised in the Midwest and me in the Northwest or just family differences, but when I said dinner was at 1, that's what I meant and they'd show up at 2 which meant it was all going to be overcooked. I had to learn to adjust what I told them.

  10. First time here - very interesting post. I enjoy how you include math, culture and terrible terrorist events into one piece.

    I've never been to India but I have worked with Indian people and my daughter spent time there. It was described as many countries in one, like a type of Europe.

    As some of the other comments show, the timeliness thing is universal. Many places talk about their own "time". Slow is good sometimes.

    I recently watched a documentary "The Laughing Club of India".
    Have you seen those clubs?

  11. I've run out of words to describe how much I enjoy your posts! I always learn something fascinating or intriging or interesting or all three, but always wonderful. Interesting about being "on time" -- I've always been one of those time conscious ones, although I loosened up a little the year I lived in Mexico and earlier the two years in Spain -- where being on time isn't a big thing, or one that is practiced. Thanks as always!

  12. sometimes I wonder, if, maybe we picked up the inaccurate-gene or something, at some point in the vast migrations that took place across continents, aeons ago....
    Brilliant:) That's indeed something worth analyzing...When did our mathematical skills and the urge to be deliberately and conclusively accurate (as is evident in the verbal transmission of ancient sanskrit verses) disintegrate to the quintessential 'chalta hai'?:) Very, very interesting read...I know I'm repeating myself but how do you come up with a striker each time?:)

  13. Sujatha Thank you. I am sure todays generations dont even know what a furlong is.....I did pre-metric school maths, and had a tough time with all those calculations. Decimal ki Jai ho !

    Vinita I think we all carry that "latecomers-DNA"....

    Darlene Thank you. I too have once landed up early and embarassed the host. Ever since then I follow IST. :-)

    Vivek I never knew about the tricks of buying tickets which you mention. I guess we Indians have a loophole obessesion, so much so that as soon as a rule is made, we seek the loophole, and if there isnt one, then we make one !

    KaviWe are a standingexample of the dictum "the more things change the more they remain the same.". I am sure if someone made a rule for us, they would have to change the rule before anyone agreed to change. Bad, na ?

    Enchanted I agree travelling in non metro areas in India is more fun. I only hope it remains like that. Furlongs or not, asking people is more fun than looking at screens and listetening to robot voices.....

    A.I. Relax. Tension mat le. Its OK. Type A behaviour predisposes us to heart disease. So accept IST....:-)

    Lakshmi I am sure we are being laughed at. But we have the supreme ability to not be aware of it. Thats why we tolerate so much...and hence things are unpredictable...

    Rain Sometimes i wonder if, culturally, we can postulate a theory , of how late can a person be in a given culture to still be considered OK, punctualitywise. In some countries 5 minutes late is very late. There may be countries where 30 minutes late in OK. Here 5 minutes late is excessively early.....

    lisleman Welcome to the blog. You might think of India as a type of Europe, given that our states are roughly linguistically organized. But unilke Europe, where countries have gone to war with each other, we have a common thread of our Indianness binding us. Unity in Diversity and all that.

    About the laughing clubs, yes I know folks who go to these. There is one just outside my late parents home in a public garden. Lots of people attend this and greatly enjoy. The health benefits as well as at he camaraderie....

    Sylvia K Thank you. I guess it is nice to be able to experience this aspect of time in all cultures. Though sometimes I am cinvinced we are masters are abusing it here......

    Napervillemom" do you come up with a striker each time?:)....."

    I've been dying to say this : "Because I play carrom....:-)..." In my younger days this was called a PJ.

    I see something peculiar happened above with my comment.
    Please make the most of inaccuracies in time. This will be soon short lived because the world is closing in.
    There's something relaxing about being able to be late.

    June in Oz

  15. June,

    Something strange is happening here too. Whenever I access your blog , suddenly a window pops up saying "Firefox has encounterd a problem and wishes to close" etc, and everything hangs.

    The interesting thing is that this bug earlier came on Kate's blog, and then on Pearl's. It went away by itself from those blogs and now seems to be in Australia.

    I can now do Kate's and Pearl's blogs without any messages popping up. Just waiting for them to go from your blog.

    I just hope I dont get the messages on my own blog....

    Ah well, the wonders of technology. Looks like Firefox is like-that-only....!