The Long Goodbye
Why Indian guests linger at the door, and other timeless habits.
Some years ago, I happened to be in India for Diwali. Perhaps the first time in 10 years that I was in my hometown of Chennai for this most important festival in my culture. My good friend Shiv had invited me to his house for a Diwali party, which I was delighted to accept. What time should I be there, I asked. Oh, 7 pm should be fine, he said. I planned carefully, adjusted for traffic delays driving across town, and showed up exactly at 7 pm. Shiv wasn’t home, and his wife was getting the house ready for the guests. From the look of things, the guests weren’t expected anytime soon, and the hosts weren’t quite ready either.
However, she graciously invited me into the house since I was already there—a bona fide guest who had showed up on time. I walked in, and I saw one other guest, sitting a little uncomfortably and examining the interior décor with great interest (it’s amazing how one can fixate on the most mundane of things when you have nothing to do, nowhere to go, and no one to talk to). He looked up at me with great relief, like he just set eyes on a fellow traveler in the Sahara who just might have some drinking water.
Turned out he was from Minneapolis. It’s close enough to Chicago that we’re practically neighbours (relative to the distance we had both traveled to be in Chennai that evening). Our host, the aforementioned Shiv, a charming man with a mischievous grin, walked in and announced– oh, so the Americans are here! Just as we expected. He and his wife went on to explain that we “Americans” are always on time and hosts have a dilemma on their hands every time they invite Indian Indians and Western Indians home. The westerners will always show up on time, the Indians never will. As it turned out, the Indian guests arrived between 60 and 120 minutes later that evening. A random walk by any definition.
I routinely suffered this embarrassment in the US, where I live. We have many Indian friends who are gregarious, party-throwing types for whom the concept of time is somewhat loose. We used to be always among the first guests to show at any party. One time, we showed up at the appointed hour and learned the hostess was upstairs taking a “nap”—at 8 pm. There was no food or drink anywhere to be seen, no other guests. The hapless husband poured wine in paper cups for us while we waited for her to wake up.
That was the day I swore never to show up on time ever again for an Indian party. But then, it got me thinking about this strange cultural issue. Why are Indians never on time for parties? More specifically, for Indian parties, and even more specifically, when the party is hosted by close friends. And all this is just about getting to the party. It’s a whole another matter when it’s time to leave.
There are broadly three types of departures—early departures, mass departures, and the stragglers—distributed nicely along a bell curve.
Early departures: Guests have another party or two to hit up before the end of the evening, so they need to go.
Mass departures: Group behaviour brought on by the sight of other guests beginning to gather up their belongings to leave.
Stragglers: Ones who won’t leave till every last drop in the whiskey bottle has been consumed.
They all have one thing in common. The Long Goodbye.
Indian guests who have spent the last three hours catching up with every other guest, will suddenly remember many things they need to talk about just as they are about to leave. So between goodbye hugs all around, the conversation drags as they announce they are about to leave (the hosts will always protest—do you need to leave so early? Never mind its 1 am.). As the guests reach the door and put on their footwear ( Indians are very conscientious about leaving footwear at the door—it’s ingrained in our culture, just like never picking up food with your left hand), there’s more hugs and goodbyes. Wait, it’s not over yet. The host will follow you to your car, or at least to the end of the driveway, while you’re getting ready to leave. By now, the kids in the back seat are ready to blow their brains out with boredom and frustration (after all, its 2 am now). And so finally, we depart.
Our scriptures exhort us to honour the principle of Atithi Devo Bhava (loosely, the guest is to be treated and welcomed like God) but neither guest nor host seems to think that necessarily means being punctual.
So, I decided to conduct some deep psychological and sociological research into the Long Goodbye. I wanted to leave no stone unturned in my quest for the truth. I started with three things:
1. I asked my close friends if they had read Raymond Chandler’s book from 1953 in their childhood. My hypothesis was that some kind of groupthink had developed in the 60s and 70s based on some influential book (no internet or TV back then). I quickly eliminated that theory because no one I talked to had read that book or seen Robert Altman’s film of the same name ( Never mind that the book itself has nothing to do with anything here I’m talking about. I just want to impress the reader with the rigour of my research).
2. I talked to my wife and kids. My kids ignored my question and went on with their work. My wife shook her head and gently suggested I look at the grocery list to run some errands.
3. I talked to my American therapist. He said it was quite simple. You Indians Are Like That Only. I got upset with him because a) I was paying him for therapy, not to insult my culture and b) he was probably right.
Being of a scientific temperament, I decided then to start at the beginning of time. Or, more precisely, the beginning of Indian Standard Time. Turns out there’s quite a story there. Here’s what Wikipedia (the source of universal truth) had to say:
After independence in 1947, the Indian government established IST as the official time for the whole country, although Kolkata and Mumbai retained their own local time (known as Calcutta time and Bombay Time) until 1948 and 1955, respectively. The Central observatory was moved from Chennai to a location at Shankar Garh Fort Allahabad District, so that it would be as close to UTC +5:30 as possible.
It also turns out there were attempts to introduce three different time zones in the 80s, and also a proposal to revert to some colonial-era time zones (such as tea-time, not to be confused with the time for drinking tea—it was time observed in the tea gardens, the bagans of the north-east where the sun rises and sets much earlier than in Amchi Mumbai). As recently as 2001, there was even a government committee set up to assess the merits of multiple time zones for India, but their recommendations were shot down by the irrepressible Kapil Sibal who declared that “the prime meridian was chosen with reference to a central station, and the expanse of the Indian State was not large.” Wow. So we’re not a big country. Take that, you rabid nationalists.
Anyway, the point is that we are a confused polity when it comes to deciding what time it is, or what time it should be, for anything. (Never mind what place it should be. Every town and street worth naming in India has changed names in the last 20 years. This has only caused more confusion and second-guessing among intelligent Indians.)
Note though, that we are incredibly punctual and punctilious when it comes to our religious ceremonies. Ask a self-respecting Indian what he would think of being, say 30 minutes late, to tie the knot at his wedding with his bride, and potentially missing the auspicious moment. Not a chance. Or the glamorous Bollywood producer who has to break the nariyal (coconut) for his film’s muhurat (launch) at an appointed time when the constellations line up in a certain way that makes a ka-ching sound at the box office. NFW.
Note also, that in the horribly complicated US, which observes nine official time zones (yes—NINE. If you don’t believe me, look up Wikipedia), as well as daylight savings time—with some degree of confusion about Arizona, Indiana, the Navajo Nation and the like—Americans still get to work on time, show up for and leave parties on time, and are generally good about managing their time. I must clarify that the very same Indian Americans I refer to are rarely, if ever, late for work-related appointments or official events, or parties hosted by Americans (which may or may not include other Indians).
I grew up in an India where people would routinely ask other people for the time of day. Not many people had watches; they were a luxury. Many families listened to the radio to get a sense of time (If it was Binaca Geetmala on the radio, it was 7 pm). My father was the only one who had a watch in our home. It was gifted to him by my grandfather when he married my mother. It was a Favre-Leuba, with hand-winding machinery. One day, when I was in high school, he was mugged when walking along the road at Ekdalia Park in South Calcutta, and they look his watch. I know for a fact that we lost all sense of time (we were timeless, in some ways) for a long time. Many years later, after I moved to the US, I bought him a nice watch which he wore till the day he died.
So here is my conclusive theory on this. Growing up with a degree of timelessness at a time when no one knew precisely what time it was gave an entire generation a warped sense of time. In later years, external factors like unpredictable flight delays, horrible city traffic, complicated game theories about how late the other person was likely to be for the meeting, linear programming models that simulated a time-series flow of guests at an Indian party—all of these made the simple act of showing up on time an extremely complex thing to accomplish.
But why do Indians linger at the door every time it’s time to say goodbye? I am currently studying the latest behavioral theories for clues to explain this phenomenon. For now, I am behind schedule in turning in this piece to my publisher.