City City Bang Bang, Columns

The Forgotten Afternoon

The afternoon attracts no poetry. It lies as a forgotten part of the day, a forlorn bridge between the bits that excite our imagination. We might be morning or evening people, but no one talks about inspiration striking them at 4:30 pm. In truth of course, many great discoveries or artistic epiphanies might well have broken through our consciousness at precisely this hour, but culturally we are loath to acknowledge this.

In India, at least we can understand the disdain that we feel for the afternoon. The sun is merciless for large parts of the country for much of the year, and escaping into the shade is an imperative. The afternoon is a time to lie low, to skulk in the shadows till the sun decides to let up. But even in the rest of the world the afternoon is, relatively speaking, the least heralded part of the day.

The attraction of the other parts of the day is easy to understand. The morning is the dawn of new things, the beginning of a fresh chapter. The sun comes out as the day breaks and light gradually fills our lives. We are meant to rise, to shine and to get on with living our lives. In reality and metaphor, mornings represent an awakening, they reek of freshness and rejuvenation, and advertise the effects of a good night’s sleep. Mornings erase, even if momentarily, the darkness of the night before and the memories that we might carry as a burden around us. The morning is always an opportunity to write a fresh story in a world born anew.

Aesthetically too, the morning is pretty. The air is bracing, unless one lives in Delhi, and the sky is full of kind light. The sun is at its most benign and it lights up the world as if it is seeing it for the first time. No wonder so much poetry surrounds the wee hours of the morning. So many Hindi film songs, which are really a measure of the poetry that everyone understands, are about the glory of the morning.

Evenings are the time when we get to do what we really want. Going out, meeting friends, unwinding with a drink, watching television. It is a time for lovers’ trysts and romantic yearning as per the many film songs that sing the glories of the shaam, sanjh and sandhya-ki-bela. Evenings slip into nights which is similarly a reservoir of meanings. If the day is all clarity and light, the night lends itself to many more subtleties. It is variously a site of sensuous possibilities, a time of loneliness and despair, an occasion to extract the most from life, a veil, a confidant, to name but a few ways in which it is imagined.

It is not as if afternoons have nothing to commend them for. Perhaps the best part of the afternoon is the school bell. Nothing represents the freedom from cloistering better than the abandon with which children break out from school. The summer afternoon is no deterrent, escape is always joyful. The other time of the year when the afternoon is actually looked forward to is the winters in the North. Till the sun lasts in the sky, afternoons are blissful. Or those times when after a heavy meal one drifts off into a torpid sleep, lost to the world. The afternoon nap is peculiarly delicious for it is time stolen from purpose and productivity. It is a defiant negation of the idea of the day as it has come to mean today. Cultures across the world including many parts of India have institutionalised the idea of the afternoon nap; shops in many towns used to be closed after lunch. After all, which sane person would venture out to buy things when they should have been asleep?

Even in the office, the afternoon is a slow time. Post-lunch meetings can elicit heartfelt groans. Conferences slot either the most boring or the most rousing speakers in the post-lunch ‘death’ slot. To counter the obvious fading of human attention in the afternoon, we now have the idea of a light lunch that stints on both calories and the mysterious substances in our food that makes eyelids heavy and minds fuzzy. Of course, for a bulk of Indians lunch in office is still a 4-box tiffin affair, that can neither be hurried nor cut back on.

The afternoon cup of tea is what brings us back to some semblance of life. If the morning cup is meant to gently ease us back to the land of the living, the afternoon has a more onerous mission. It needs to startle our senses into wakefulness so that we can go back to pretending to work. The afternoon snacks, if any are simply an added blandishment to coax us into some form of alertness.

But otherwise the afternoon is something to run from. Growing up, the opportunity to escape into the air-conditioned arms of a cinema theatre in the 3-6 pm show was as close to bliss as one could imagine.

Our quarrel with the afternoon comes perhaps with the fact that it is the most shapeless part of the day. It is the day without nuance, without texture. It is the flattest stretch of time that we pass in a day. One where the sun keeps on climbing in the sky, doing nothing interesting. There is no meaning that one accords to this barren stretch of time. Even as a metaphor it offers little. We talk about the evenings of our life, but what would its afternoon look like? It is neither the beginning nor the end, it portends nothing and symbolises little. Everyday, it comes and then it goes.