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India Diary – Elastic Time


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Local trains in Madras
Local trains in Madras

In her book Full Tilt, the intrepid traveler Dervla Murphy who, in 1965 cycled from Ireland to India, talks about waiting for commuter buses in Afghanistan. There wasn’t a timetable for when the buses would ply and passengers would often wait for hours and sometimes days for a bus to take them to their destination. There was none of the frequent watch-checking or tongue-clicking that Dervla had noticed in her native Ireland but instead a stoic resignation and an endless reserve of patience. Dervla remarks how the average person in Afghanistan seemed unfettered by the tyranny of clocks and appeared to be content with leading their days in a seamless, unpartitioned flow.

View from the train
View from the train

Yesterday as I took the local train in Chennai, Dervla’s experience came to mind. When I arrived at the platform there was no indication when the next train would. The sole digital clock hanging on the wall gave the time but little else. There was no board to indicate frequency or tannoy announcements apologising for delays or updating on progress of trains. I asked some of the others waiting if they knew when the train was expected. One lady shrugged. Another said ‘any time now’ which could be interpreted as being anywhere in the next five minutes to within the hour.

Adyar river
Adyar river

I sighed, checked my watch and settled down to look passively in the same direction as the rest of the platform. Eventually the train arrived. I didn’t bother to check the time.

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