When time stands still, when the present is deferred and the future prorogued, when you can’t tell the hour of the day or the date of the month, when your biological clock is seriously disjointed, how do you cope with yourself? In a plague the only activity, says Albert Camus, is to mark time. The illusion of time passing, its bare chronicity, is sustained by weaving it into a meaningful plot of activity. In quotidian terms the prospect of living in the future, planning for tomorrow, is a sign of being alive.
All of us invest time with shape and significance in our own different ways. The office going creature, a civil servant, a sub-variety of the species Homo Sapiens, spends his day and half the evening working in the office, creating more work for everyone around, up and down, fills the emptiness in his life with files and endless palaver and gossip about matters concerning this activity. No wonder extension of service is so much coveted for its own sake in government circles. After retirement many take to golf to while away time. Books have been my solace for very long and now that I am the complete master of my own time, we have become inseparable companions. During the lockdown, trapped away from home in distant Delhi, I am cut off from the source of my sustenance, my hoard of books, well leafed, dog-eared, some tattered as well but loved nonetheless for it, to each one of them, on every shelf, I could reach with the instinct of a homing bird. If Philip Larkin were to pose the question to me “ What are days for ?” I would unhesitatingly say, ‘ for reading books, what else are days for?’
But what do you do when you have the time but you do not have the freedom to organise it around activities meaningful to you. Eliot's poetic projection, “all time is eternally present” suddenly becomes a dreaded reality and you begin to wonder whether it is not a stroke of good fortune to be able to lament you “have no time to stand and stare?”
I was introduced to Andrew Marvel - and other Metaphysicals- more than fifty years ago, as a teenager, and I have maintained very cordial relations with them ever since. I admired Marvel’s metaphysical conceits as a young man but at the ripe old age of sixty eight, I discovered the prophetic nature of his poetry which is at the same time pragmatic too. Marvel was aware of the dual nature of time, the one that hangs on your head and the other which slips through your fingers. In his poem 'To His Coy Mistress', he holds out a formula for coping with the phenomenon of time dilation during indefinite lockdown: praising,
An hundred years should go to praise
Nor would I love at lower rate.
Plan B addressed the issue in a forthright and practical manner. Knowing full well that time is a cheat, it has to be given a run for its money “like amorous birds of prey,/Rather at once our time devour/Than languish in his slow-chapped power/... though we cannot make our sun/ Stand still, yet we will make him run.”
(I have done my share of gazing and praising and all that forty five years of happy conjugal life entails. I have discovered my wife’s heart and I can vouch that it is pure gold. But that is not the issue in the times of lockdown. The more important question that folks are asking is what do we do about social distancing? Get a bed broad enough to maintain the norm, get another bed or have separate bedrooms? Modi jee did not tell us that! Obligation without explanation is the norm for us, we have become used to taking orders with sweet docility! We are the lock-down people, our homes are our prisons, we are our own warders.