Clocks by Mayank Chhaya
The year was 1978 and the city Ahmedabad. As usual the air was furnace hot and terribly meddlesome and I was waiting at a bus stand waiting for, well, a bus, I suppose.
I could see my bus at some distance and felt reassured that soon I would be in the cooler climes of my home. That’s when an elderly man—at 17 which I was everyone feel elderly—came to the bus stand.
He was inordinately cheerful for a May afternoon in Ahmedabad when temperatures could soar to 45 degree Celsius (113 Fahrenheit). He greeted me with great effusion. He said hello as if he was on a long distance call.
I said hello back.
He pointed at my wristwatch and asked, “What is time?”
That was a mistake as he soon found out. In cricket parlance this was a half volley. When a bowler bowls a half volley to any batsman of any talent he would normally try and score a boundary or a sixer.
I mock-meditated on his unintentionally profound question and said, “That is indeed a deep question. Even Einstein tried to answer it but could do so fully. I don’t think I can do it standing at this bus stand with my bus approaching.”
He was so completely confused at my answer that he said again, “Arey na na, what is time?” even as vigorously pointed at my wristwatch.
“If you want to know what the time is it is about 3 pm,” I said and boarded the bus. He did not, prompting me to ask in Gujarati, “Aa bas nathi ramari (Isn’t this the bus for you too?”)
I finished my assholishness (not a word) by saying, “Merely because I have a watch does not me I have the time or that I understand time.”*
He looked at me in weird anger and said, “Tu ja. Hoon beeji lai laish. (You carry on. I will take the next one).”
The point is I was always fascinated by the very anthropocentric idea of time. I do frequently read “Relativity: The Special and the General Theory” by Albert Einstein. I am no closer to comprehending it than I was when I first read it over 30 years ago. You have to see my lack of comprehension of Einstein’s theory of relativity in the context that I have lived my entire adult life in the mistaken belief that I have a fair idea about physics.
So when I read Einstein’s preface I have got to seriously question my intelligence. He writes, “The work presumes a standard of education corresponding to that a university matriculation examination, and, despite the shortness of the book, a fair amount of patience and force of will on the part of the reader.”
I do have “a standard of education corresponding to a university matriculation examination” as a matter of fact. I also do have “a fair amount of patience and force of will.” And yet I find myself not getting the hang of the specifics of his theory. I understand it at the intuitive level but struggle at the more practical level.
He also candidly says that he has not paid “the slightest attention to the elegance of the presentation.” “I adhered scrupulously to the precept of the brilliant theoretical physicist L. Boltzmann, according to whom matters of elegance ought to be left to the tailor and to the cobbler.”
I suppose that’s where I come in, either as a tailor or a cobbler or a writer. We are all the same after all because we create things that fit either your body, feet or mind. Since Einstein talks of matters of elegance and by extended logic aesthetics, I have digitally painted clocks as part of my portfolio. One of which, the one in red, is being submitted for an upcoming competition. The melting red clock is supposed to represent time dilation.
The purpose behind reading the book again has been necessitated by my enthusiasm to understand the concept of time dilation. While reading about time dilation one frequently comes across what is known as the “Twin Paradox.” It is about an imaginary set of twins, one of whom travels by train to a distant station and returns while the other stays stationary. The one who has traveled and returned would be younger than the one who stayed stationary. That is the general concept. I get it and yet don’t get it. That is my paradox.
I would not say I feel frustrated, but I certainly do feel unhappy that I have not been able to grasp the theory of relativity to the extent that I can just write something off the cuff the way I do about a lot of other subjects. As someone captivated by physics it is embarrassing that I have made no headway when it comes to understanding one of the core principles of physics.
How fair did Einstein think “a fair amount of patience” should be? For that matter, how forceful should my “force of will” be to be able to explain the theory to a complete novice and make it comprehensible?
*Hard as it may seem, I have quoted everything verbatim here. I did indeed say those things.