‘How long are you planning to stay?’ — ‘Another papad?’

They seek him here, they seek him there
Those Frenchies seek him everywhere
Is he in heaven or is he in hell?
That demned elusive Pimpernel
― The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905), Baroness Emmuska Orczy

Time and tide wait for no man. But boy, is there a tide in the affairs of some men who wait to know every aspect of your time. ‘How long are you planning to stay?’ has to be in the same league of pointless questions as ‘How does the defendant plead?’ and ‘Bhaiyya, these veggies are fresh, right?’. It has the additional virtue of being downright rude.

There is a certain candour, even chutzpah, when someone – usually an elderly relative, or a friend of the same age-group – asks things like ‘How much is your ‘take home’?’ or ‘What rent do you pay for this place?’ I have fobbed off these Buland Darwaza-prying inquiries from non-Enforcement Directorate folks by either shrugging and ho-humming back with ‘Oh, it’s okay’, or with a ‘Some more papaad, uncle?’ But when faced with those persistent questions about one’s itinerary and schedule, the ripostes trip less thick and fast off one’s tongue.

‘Spacetime’ questions outside astrophysics are fundamentally conversation fillers, literally time-pass queries, like talking about the weather (unless you were in Dubai, or went out to vote this week). It also uses time – or, more accurately, temporality – as a crutch to hobble along a tête-à-tête that, unbeknown to the intrusive questioner, is as offensive as the Viet Cong’s Tet one. As far as social etiquette goes, ‘How long will you be there?’ is on a par with asking a lady not just her age, but how long it is till she hits menopause.

This obsession with granular time, outside the realm of practicalities – a visit to the dentist, for instance, will require a timely appointment – is downright banal. It suggests a fawning approach to life, where the exact time and date of meeting a person of interest/importance is bandied about forever as a proto-selfie with a VIP with a time stamp.

To interrogate someone about his or her schedule as a social device is not just time-pass, it’s time banditry. So, it was while reading Liu Cixin’s masterful 2008 SF novel, The Three-Body Question – where in a highly immersive VR video game shows players aeons passing in days, and civilisations being created and destroyed in hours — that I found some tips to deal with this kind of sad eti-coquetry:

  • There is no single timeline Tell different people different itineraries. If you’re in Delhi this week and Rome the next, when in Rome act as if you’re still in Delhi. Or even better, tell them you’re in Kolkata, where few people are likely to travel to meet you. If you do bump into the wrong person in the right city, blame it on your hectic schedule and inability keep track of where you are even at that moment.
  • ‘Soon’ This is one of the most beautiful and utilitarian 4-lettered words in the English language. Like Khanna Guruji’s constant use of the mantra ‘Aham Brahmasmi’ in the 2018-19 Netflix series Sacred Games, ‘soon’ means many things to many people in response to many questions in many times. To the constant query of when you’ll be ‘catching up’ – the verb pointing to the very menace of such a meeting — ‘Soon’ is as all-pervading, all-protecting, all-dodging as ‘Om’.
  • Philosophical repartee Having evolvedfrom the oldschoolboy joke of responding to ‘What’s the time?’ with ‘Time is a weekly [well, now fortnightly] American news magazine’, you can now jolly well reply to ‘How long are you here?’ with [eyes momentarily shut and then twirling one’s hands] ‘Who knows? One day you’re standing and smiling, the next day you may be dead and gone.’ I suspect, such deep, insightful remarks were invented in the first place to fob such busybodies off.
  • Divine intervention/inventions When confronted by someone seeking a ‘courtesy call’, or looking to engage in a ‘bridge-building’ exercise (what are you, L&T?!), one can calmly respond that god has already invented email. It is ‘a wonderful device’, and it would make perfect communicative sense to drop a line there to build whatever social escalator that one is seeking to erect.

Till then, catch you soon.


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