City City Bang Bang, Columns

The quality of waiting

It is telling that doctors have something called a waiting room. It underlines the fact that when we are made to wait for what feels like hours, every time we catch a cold, it is not an accident, but part of a well-designed plan. Time becomes blank in a doctor’s waiting room. It starts out with a shape and a sound but as minutes tick on, and the scene around one stabilises into a form of permanence, time begins to lose definition. It is no longer something we are inside, but something we can observe with a degree of detachment. In the old days, when doctors had clinics that tried to conjure up an image of homeliness, there were a desultory set of magazines that lay around, daring us to read them. Reading those magazines, made time even more wretched. Now of course, as medicine has become corporatized, the cosy sitting rooms of yore have given way to large halls, which have television sets that are almost always tuned to some obscure news channel, that is determined to make us unhappy about something.

In some government hospitals, waiting is never idle. In places that do not have a formal system of queues (and even in places that do), one is always at war with other patients, either trying to break the queue through acts of artifice and even bribery, or to prevent others from doing so. Waiting here, is a stressful event, for one can never let one’s guard down. In India, this kind of waiting is quite normal, given that there are always ways of cutting the queue, whether at an airport, ration shop or railway reservation counter, and one toggles freely between trying to do so oneself and hating anyone else who tries to do the same.

Waiting which would seem to a state of blankness with the same empty quality of far from being so. Every different form of waiting comes with its own timbre, firing its own set of neurons in our brains. Desultory waiting, anxious waiting, hopeless waiting, excited waiting. Waiting for a flight. Waiting in a flight. Waiting in a traffic jam. Waiting at a level crossing. Waiting for the flight to land. Waiting to cross Immigration. Waiting for a class to end. Waiting in a queue. For a film ticket that might at any time become unavailable. Waiting for a computer to boot. For the phone to ring. For the result to appear on the website.

Time has a way of losing its apparent objectivity. Subjective time is full of caprice, behaving differently at different times. It drips. It sits still. It stretches. It yawns in slow motion. It stutters. It curves. It expands. It vanishes, rolling up into a ball. The clock hand resigns. Time ceases to matter. One lives in a time- free zone.

Waiting becomes easier when time is accompanied by activity. When there are markers of time, then time breaks down into manageable bits as it counts down. Queues that are long but moving feel infinitely better than those that show no inclination to move. A longer route where traffic is moving is preferable to a shorter one where it is sludge

The mobile phone has made waiting easier. In a larger sense too, the digital world has taken a big bite out of the need to wait. We can pay bills online, complete banking transactions, buy things while twiddling our thumbs or more precisely by twiddling them.

Now one is forever occupied, lost in the screen. There are messages to read and send, games to play and cat videos to watch.

But it has also made waiting a permanent condition. As it has the state of being alone. One is always waiting for something to happen even when something is happening. And we are always alone even when we are with people. We are now perpetually in a doctor’s waiting room twiddling our thumbs, impatiently waiting for the next screen to load. Every time we do something, Something Else is knocking impatiently on our window pane.

Time certainly had a different quality earlier. Speeches lasted for a few hours. Trains were always delayed by an indeterminate amount of time. We waited eight years to buy a scooter. As a rule, things refused to happen. When anything happened, anything at all, it engaged us. We sat on porches and at windows feeding off from other peoples’ activities. Time had no exchange value. So what if you waited? Boredom was an arena, a large barren space into which imagination had no choice but to bloom. When we found devices that held time at bay, we juiced them for everything that they were worth. Newspaper read word for word. Every book by one’s favourite authors read over and over again.

Interestingly, in the early days of the digital, waiting for a connection to materialise as we dialled up our modems, was a defining element of our experience. Nothing was more frustrating than the sound of the device straining almost physically to break through the static and deliver a connection, and nothing sweeter when success was finally achieved.

All around us, technology is conspiring to eliminate the very idea of waiting. Today, one of its central quests is to completely demolish the gap that exists between desire and its fulfilment. The digital world is focused on finding ways to understand us so well through the data trail that we leave behind and then delivering to our needs with ever greater speed. The world is being served up to us, and the universe is rearranging itself around the individual. Whenever we want something, wherever we might be, the idea is that thought must not be separated from action, for an instant longer than necessary. But this might turn out to be elusive. No matter how much we try, we will always find a way for our reach to exceed our grasp. We will still find some reason to wait.

Post a Comment

Your email is never shared. Required fields are marked *