Flickering lights over the sea of time.
How should a thinking mind envision time? Like, what are the images that one should invoke when it is thinking about the singular entity that binds the entire universe together - Time!
Now, this question can get tricky based on when, where and to whom you are posing it. Before we start drawing an image of time on the canvas of our minds, we should first settle on our definition of time. And you see, it is not an easy task. Let me show it with an example.
If you were to ask a simple being to define time, he may not have a ready answer. Take a pause now and ask yourself - what is time? How do you define it? If you see the dial of a clock, ask yourself - which clock is that? I mean, you have seen a thousand different clocks in your life. But now, you are seeing just one in your mind. Why is that?
It is not easy to answer. You may be lucky, if you know where exactly you have seen this clock. Most of us are not. And even if you cannot recall, think about it - there should be a reason why you are seeing this dial now. Of all the clocks that have told you time, this is the clock that has stuck to your mind’s dial and there should be a reason behind it.
Often, this reason could be as simple as how that dial caught your mind’s fancy. Not all choices of the mind are explicable. But then, sometimes the reason could be terrifying, like in my case here. The clock I saw in my mind was the one I grew up seeing at my maternal home. And it shows the time, 02:05. That was the time when my great uncle left us forever. He was a healthy, energetic man. He was a few years older than my grandfather, but looked much younger. But on that fateful night many years ago, he suddenly passed away. But amusingly, the clock at my house stopped at that very moment. I don’t know why, but nobody in my house, except me, noticed it until he was buried. I remember seeing his cold dead face, as he lay in our drawing room, unperturbed by the little congregation that had formed around him. That was the first time I was witnessing a death in the family and it wasn’t pretty. I looked at his face, and felt a sharp pain in my chest - perhaps that’s the first time I knew what the fear of death felt like. And the metaphor of an unkind death biting you with it’s cold fangs makes a lot of sense to me now, as I recall that pain I felt that day.
I have seen my great uncle many times before, merrily walking across the house, visiting us and letting us sit on his generous lap. He was definitely a huge man, but I don’t seem to recall his face. Of course, I can recall what he looked like, but that’s a later reconstruction from the photographs found in the family album. The last time I saw him was when he lay dead at our drawing room, shortly before he was cremated. No matter how I try, I cannot recall his face.
Interestingly, I can recall the happenings of that day, recorded in my memory with a bluish tint, with a grey outlay over the entire scene. I don’t recall that day in first person! As in, when we recall things, we see them as we saw them when they happened. But when I recall this day, I see it as a recording being played out, inside my mind. It is slightly tinted and I can see all the characters, including myself. The scene is neatly set in our living room, with white clothes to mark the occasion and a gloomy crowd that didn’t forget to cry occasionally. The emotional status of the room was that of an oscillating pendulum, or so I felt. When I play out that day in mind, the emotions aren’t immediately visible. Sure, everyone is crying and trying to make sense of their place in that room. But I was unable to gauge how emotions flowed through it. I could sense it though. The emotional status of the room oscillated between highs and lows, but how I sense it was purely physical. I could sense the room swelling with emotions and then releasing it the next moment. The loud wails are muted, and the only way I could sense them was through the slight vibrations they gave off on the mind’s screen where this recorded memory was being played. The most important moment of this video comes somewhere in between. I am unable to place the exact moment where this emotional apogee happens. The only thing is that this moment comes again and again in this video. That is when I leave the living room and slowly make my way to the dining hall, wading through people who are crowding in my way for no apparent reason. I struggle through the small passage that connects the living room with the dining hall. It was always darker than the rest of the house. If you are to go visit that house today, you’ll see that it is still darker than the living room and the dining hall that it connects. Years down the line, we still prefer to keep the lights in that passage switched off.
It is a narrow, but short passage anyways and I make my way to the dining hall where the fateful clock hangs unceremoniously, perhaps glancing at all the women who have gathered around the round dining table. No, it was a rectangular dining table! We bought the rounded one with a shiny quartzite glass top only many years later. At that time, we had a rectangular one with a plastic matte off-white top with little black squares all over it. I remember looking at leftover food that sometimes fell on that table. And how my mind raced when a stream of curry fell over the table top and zigzagged towards its edges. Everytime, I wished that the curry stream didn’t touch the little black squares. It wasn’t symmetry that I longed for, but the order that my eternal little black squares desired on that chaotic table top. Nothing would be eternal though, the table eventually made its way to the landfill and the little black squares lost their sheen much before we disposed of the table, yet they remain at the rough edges of my mind, refusing to be forgotten.
And it was over that table, that the ladies of the house and a few others, ruminated about the past that day. Some of them were crying, others just staring at each other. I wonder what news was traded that day. Some of it was about the deceased for sure, but most of it would have concerned those he left behind. I have no means to know. And this scene is tinted too. Only that the lens that my mind has used to form this image was a curved one. The image is not entirely visible, it is magnified towards its middle and the edges are dimmed. They are not just blurred, but are dimmed! So when I look at this scene, I see a large black circle over it. I wouldn’t know what happened there, but I can definitely see the faceless women who stood magnified at the center of that frame.
But that is beside the point, what mattered was the omniscient wall clock that hung above them all. It is a terrifying thing to zoom inside a memory to ferret out details that you haven’t recorded otherwise. More often, we see nothing when we zoom inside. Plus, as Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle would have it, it seems that measuring or perusing a memory alters it. Every time you try to dissect a memory or a dream, it is altered. I explore this idea here - after a random stranger I met on reddit motivated me to think about it. Coming back, analysing a dream or memory is enough to alter it a bit. As humans, we don’t maintain the number of times we have revisited a memory. Every memory that we hold was kneaded many times in the past. You played it over and over till it got metamorphosed into something else. Every time you went all nostalgic about something, it got transformed a little in your mind! Now this isn’t difficult to see. We do this all the time. Think about someone you loved dearly. And all the emotions that they have left within you. And the memories too. Don’t forget to look at the memories that are neatly stacked at some part of your mind. They come to you whenever they are missed, and they come to you in swarms and sometimes they catch you off - guard. But they come nevertheless. And every time they visit you, you touch and feel them. Every time you touch them, you change them. The changed memories go back to the attics and when they are summoned again, you treat them as if they are the same original memories that you created many years ago. Oh, the folly!
The story doesn’t end there. But we will take it up another day. As I stand here, looking at the clock, I see a face embedded in it. Not the face of a human being, but that of a creature whose real being is entirely beyond my comprehension. It is the caricature of a sad face, with just the drooping eyelids and a rotund cheek. Nothing else. The clock’s dial has become a face, but only with those eyelids and an ill-formed cheek. I didn’t know what to make out of it. But this was the only image I had. Of a clock that showed the time - 02:05 - and that clock had a face. A face I couldn’t recognise for wanting a human to connect to it. But that was the face of a caricature that was sad and angry at the same time. But it was a face that had long given upon the fickle nature of human beings. The only time I saw it was when it presided over a death in my family. And it wasn’t showing the right time! It just chose to freeze itself at a moment in time, which was of value to my family. And when we all came back for dinner after the burial, we saw the clock smirking at all of us. It wasn’t moving, it didn’t tell us anything about time at all. It just displayed a number, a symbol, a signature of an event that marked a great loss to each one of us who sat around that square table which had little black squares on it.
We looked at it, and we were at our wits end, trying to figure out what the idea of time meant to us. Was it the eternal flow of events that marked life? Or was it a chain that dragged us towards uncertain ends, even when we didn’t want it to? Or was it merely an artifact of the universe which caught our fancy? We didn’t know. But we did know one thing for sure. My grandfather wouldn’t let that clock remain in our house after that. He bought a new clock that showed us the right time for many years that followed. But for all the time that it showed us, I don’t remember what it looked like. The old clock with its mawkish face remains etched in my mind. When I look at it again, it reminds me that my time too shall come.
Until then yours,