Sunil talks about living without his watch. He unravels ‘time’ for a historian.
Twenty four moons have waned since I last wore a watch, and I’d feel distinctly inconvenienced if I put one on today. Now, that’s a real turnabout. I know how distraught I was the day my old wristwatch (we had started our association in college) decided to take a break from its uninterrupted diurnal sweep, refusing, despite many cajoling taps, to track the sun past high noon.
I had made my way to the quiet alley behind the raucous bazaar where the watchmakers sit in their little shops, ensconced in solitary concentration. I showed my watch to old Rashid. He is my family watchmaker. I have known him since the time my grandpa brought me, a child of seven, to his grotto-like establishment where quaint wall-clocks ticked away unobtrusively and yet, on the hour, loudly chimed their presence. My tender mind had imbued Rashid’s shop with a fairy-tale quality. On my visits there I expected to see a genie suddenly appear, like it had done before Aladdin, as Rashid probed the innards of a dismantled timepiece. When I entered the shadowy portals of his shop after many long years, the old magic was still there.
Rashid had examined the watch. Screwing on an eyeglass he had stared into the open back of it, picking at the minute gears and the levers with his pincers. His furrowed face, the eyes in squint and a thin goatee made him look more like a mendicant of medieval times than a watchmaker. Finally, he broke the hardness of his scrutiny. Letting out a deep sigh, Rashid pronounced his diagnosis.
“Look Sonny, I can still set it right. Have to replace a few things here and there. But I suggest you put it aside. Get a new one. Watches do age, you know.”
So I laid my companion to rest. But something strange happened a few days later. I actually started to miss the watch. I could find no strong reason for my feeling so because I intended to buy a new watch. In fact, I was quite keen on the acquisition. Yet, in the interregnum, with my choice hovering between nice Japanese quartz and the latest Swiss design that came with a calculator, I felt, unexpectedly, a tug for those familiar silver hands marking out the Roman numerals on a cream oval.
I also discovered, in the wake of our separation, little habits of mine that had formed surreptitiously about the watch, like moss over rock. For instance, the watch had been my very own version of the Arab worry bead. In thoughtful or nervous moments, I would unstrap the device and rub my fingers over it as if it were a talisman.
And so it happened one morning on the way to the office, with the traffic snarled up and my trepidation rising, that I instinctively reached for the watch… and found an empty wrist. The electronic display on the dashboard clock had seemed indifferent to my unease, blinking out the seconds green and hard.
Of course, the sense of loss I felt at having ‘retired’ my old timepiece did not turn me against new generation watches. I had merely experienced the natural withdrawal symptoms that accompany change. I was still firming my choice about which of the two watches to buy. I guess the thoughts of my old watch just served to delay the decision, keeping the whole thing pending, the options open.
Being without a watch could be fun, I realized. It certainly made for a more exciting working day. What was previously a straight jacketed aggregate of busy hours, predetermined by the appointments pad and monitored by my wristwatch, now melded into an amorphous mix of issues! The office had suddenly become an uncertain, slippery place where the mind had to be constantly honed and readied for action. I rolled with the tide, tackling the jobs as they came. It was all along a heady combination of improvisation and control and a lapse meant getting a cold shoulder from the boss.
But more satisfying than my office roller coasting was the quieter, deeper strain of ‘timeless’ existence I had begun to uncover with every passing day. The absence of a watch set me off on a search for the real pulse beats of the present.
From a speeding bus, I had once seen a great red orb sink below the world. The horizon rose and rose till only a fiery afterglow remained in the heavens. For the first time, I perceived the steady and near imperceptible stages of the sun’s descent. I had gone beyond the calibrated seconds, minutes and hours to see the process in the raw. And as I like to imagine, the hominid Lucy, moving through the scrubby African savannah some 3000 millennia ago must have seen the same, following the sun’s exit with a sharper eye, perhaps quickening her strides just that much so as to arrive at her cavernous home with a little light still left over.
Pix from Net
Dr. Sunil Gupta is deputy curator at the Allahabad Museum. A Nehru Fellow at the Victoria and
Albert Museum, UK (1997), and JSPS Post Doctoral Fellow at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies, Kyoto (1998-99), he is widely travelled with archaeological fieldwork in Japan, China and east Africa. With published papers in India and abroad, his current focus is the archaeology of ‘trade and civilisation’ in the context of the early Indian Ocean world.