A sensible sense of time

Saturday, 8 October 2011 - 10:30am IST | Place: Singapore | Agency: DNA
In our first year in Singapore, everything was hunky dory… until we encountered the local’s strange sense of time.

Settling into Singapore has been easy for my wife and me. More Tamil is spoken here than in Mumbai; Parle G biscuits and Maggi masala-flavoured noodles are easily available and Little India definitely lives up to its name.

In our first year here, we found everything hunky dory… until we encountered the Singaporean’s strange sense of time.

For us in India, time is a loose, arbitrary concept, worn casually like a bathrobe at the poolside on a Sunday. When an Indian says he will do something ‘definitely by tomorrow’, he means he will get to it in the next few days, God willing. Likewise if he says he observed the full moon ‘just yesterday’, he means he saw it sometime during the last week (and perhaps it was not really, completely full). And on both occasions, to make matters worse, he will use the same word kal, a roomy Hindi term that accommodates both tomorrow and yesterday in its meaning.

In India, it is normal to be invited for dinner at ‘around 7:30pm’ but actually landing up anywhere close to that time would be considered a severe breach of manners. The hosts would still be cooking dinner or visiting the supermarket for ice or relaxing at the park with the kids. It is customary for the first guest to arrive after 9pm and the last, closer to 11.

Soon after we came here, a Singaporean colleague invited us home for dinner. “Come at 7pm,” he said, “We’ve invited two other couples.”

“We should reach his place at about 8:30 pm,” I told my wife on the day of the dinner. “So we should leave home at 8. That means,” I added, to ensure she understood the gravity of this statement, “you need to be ready by 7:55.”

“Absolutely,” she said and promptly came out dressed: at 8:45pm.

It was 9:15pm when we parked the car at my colleague’s apartment complex. As we reached his door, it opened and we met the other guests. They were leaving after their dinner.

Much embarrassment ensued. I apologised for our tardiness; my wife apologised after me in her inimitable way (“I told Paddy we should go earlier but he didn’t listen”); my colleague apologised for not taking my phone number and therefore not calling me (to ask what the devil I was up to); his wife apologised for serving the dinner without us; the four guests individually apologised for eating it and leaving so early. After going around at the rate of one apology per person, an uncomfortable silence descended on the group, and everyone seemed to be looking at me. So I apologised again and we went around one more time.

We might have done it a third time, but my colleague’s wife broke the deadlock. “Why don’t you come in and eat? You must be hungry and there’s lots of food.”

My wife and I entered their apartment reluctantly, but not as reluctantly as the other guests. Too polite to leave, they sat in the living room looking at us stonily while the good hosts laid the table and took food out of the refrigerator. I could sense their thoughts: a lovely night ruined, thanks to this idiot. When the food was ready, we all sat down at the dining table and, under the spotlight glare of six adults, my wife and I ate. I could have entertained everyone with a couple of funny anecdotes about life in India that I had in my repertoire but I felt the mood was not right. One of the guests was constantly drumming the table — “eat fast, eat fast, eat fast”, her fingers seemed to say — and another kept looking at his watch. So my wife and I ate silently… and at a frantic clip.

Soon we were ready to leave, as were the other table-drumming, watch-watching guests. After we had said bye and thrown a few more apologies at everyone, I turned to my wife.

“Whew!” I said, “Next time, we go 10 minutes earlier than the time he calls us.”

But for some odd reason, my colleague hasn’t called us again. I wonder if I should give him my cell phone number once more.

Paddy Rangappa is a freelance writer
based in Singapore. Read more on his blog:

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