Friday, August 28, 2009

In Search of Lost (Units of) Time

This one's for Arun Uncle, who as I just found out, is a fan of Proust. It's also something I've been wanting to write on for years now, and had forgotten about, till it all came back to me now...

I always thought a "pal", as in Aane waala pal jaane waala hai, was the Hindi equivalent of a moment. I was gobsmacked when I found out, several years ago, that a pal is actually a unit of measurement, measuring the passing of time. A pal is thus closer to being a second than a moment. A second and a moment are often interchangeable -- "Just a moment", "Just a sec". Our conception of what a moment is, the time of the ephemeral (momentary) but also the time in which something of significance (momentous) can happen, is linked to the second. It takes a second to say goodbye...

But what if we indexed our idea of a moment to another unit of measurement? What if our idea of the ephemeral (and the significant) was not the second but the pal, that forgotten unit of time? What if our idea of the moment, like the pal, was twenty four seconds long?

A pal is twenty four seconds long? Are you as gobsmacked as I was when you found out? Are you as gobsmacked as Babur, suddenly master of a strange, strange land; where the hours and minutes he was used to didn't work; there was a whole other system of keeping time (or letting it flow) time which he wrote about in his memoirs -- a pal is twenty four seconds long, sixty pals make a ghadi [24 minutes], sixty ghadis make a full day. the terms, pal and ghadi continued in everyday parlance, but their meanings were forgotten. Your tongue remembers but you do not. A pal doesn't seem all that different from a second now. The past is more a foreign country to us than India was to Babur.


Main pal do pal ka shaayar hoon...
A moment twenty four seconds long entirely changes our idea of the ephemeral, blasts it apart like Walter Benjamin's "dynamite of 1/24th of a second"[I'm paraphrasing here] once burst the prison world of our perception apart with the technology of the moving picture (films are/were shot and projected at 24 frames per second). Usain Bolt could run two hundred metres in that time,with a few seconds to spare. A gaze held across a crowded room for even half those twenty four seconds, a single wave rolling onto a beach and receding, a high note held long and defiant in a song's dying breath -- with that kind of moment the ephemeral becomes eternal. Ek pal ko amar, ek pal mein dhuaN, as Faiz wrote. Eternity one moment and smoke the next...

Zindagi ki na toote ladi, pyaar kar le ghadi do ghadi...
While the video I've linked to is outrageously (and unintentionally) campy; a ghadi, or twenty four minutes seems to be about the right length of time for doing love, for making love. Or for concentrated high intensity work time. Or the length a good refreshing "power nap" needs to be. A twenty ghadi weekday sounds like it might be a better deal than an eight hour workday, even if they are both exactly the same length of time. But are they the same length of time? If our seconds were pals and our hours were ghadis; if our seconds were longer but our hours were shorter, wouldn't time itself be different?

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