by Amitava Sen
That was a Sunday afternoon not long after I came to this country; I was traveling to Kansas City on a Sunday to attend a conference in our corporate head quarter with my boss and a few other co-workers. Although the road to the airport had light traffic, I missed the flight. I panicked at first, but then realized that no harm had been caused. The meeting was for Monday morning and I had the whole night to make up for the delay. Those were the days when Pan-Am and TWA were still flying; you could change your flights without paying a penalty or even could transfer your flight to another airline. I rebooked in a flight touching St.Louis, Missouri in between and reached my destination later in the evening. Other than my boss, Stanley Simon no one noticed that I had been missing. He seemed visibly upset. I offered some kind of excuse and he in turn did not make any attempt to hide his incredulity.
I really did not have an explanation to offer, except my genetic predisposition of not being on time and did not expect him to understand my Bengaliness and condone it. I could not tell him that we Bengalis think that the time is flexible and expandable; a given time in my punctuality concept is more like a range within which I am expected to keep it.
Habitually we not only not keep the time but at times miss the window of the range also. A Calcutta wedding is a case to the point. People will walk in any time till late night with the knowledge that the food would be there. Food is apparently the primary incentive for most people and the host understands. The host is nowhere to be seen receiving and does not even attempt to acknowledge and greet the guests. They come, eat and then they leave making no attempt to announce their presence.
After the flight incident I made a mental note to be on time, at least on official business. But my resolve cracked after a couple years and it happened to be with the same boss. This time we had a rendezvous set at Newark, New Jersey railroad station for an early morning train trip to Philadelphia. I was late again. Stanley did not exhibit any annoyance and greeted me with a smile. I was pleased to note that he knew me by then. I did not apologize. First, I did not want to embarrass him by apologizing and then apologies do not naturally come to a Bengali particularly for a minor infraction as tardiness. We did find a solution however. He took a train from Long Island to get to Newark, so we decided to drive to Philadelphia in my car. While in the car he explained to me in a very friendly way that in this country being late is rude and deemed as an affront to the host. It is not so much what we would accomplish in our appointed meeting, but irritating the person receiving us is not a good way to start or nurture a relationship.
For the second time I promised myself never to be late on any occasion, at least where an American colleague or friend was involved. And I generally have been keeping it. I realized that in this society 7 o’clock means seven not seven thirty. And now that the airlines tickets are not refundable and exchangeable only with a stiff penalty I have never missed a plane in recent days. To my credit, I have always been early at Broadway shows and that is after the first time I arrived late. Have you ever been late to a Broadway show or an opera? Tough luck, you will not be able to get in before the intermission, until then they will let you hibernate in a holding area with the performance on a TV screen.
But when it comes to dealing with local events the attitude of our Bengali audience is otherwise. At Sudipta Bhawmik’s play in New Jersey you can loiter in any time you want in the middle of the play, uncaring of the hundred other people watching in a compact auditorium and distracting the actors on the stage; after all they are all mostly our Bengali brethren.
Our proclivity for failing to be on time is most pronounced when it comes to our regular weekend dinner parties. I confess that on my part I take some liberty as well with my Bengali hosts. At dinner invitations, not arriving on time is habitual to us, as I figure a flexible time between seven and nine is quite an acceptable norm, inconvenience of the host notwithstanding. To my relief I find that no one really cares and I am not the only latecomer.
After having missed a plane and a surface transport (a train) I thought the possibility of such serious missteps was left behind, until after many years’ lapse, I almost managed to miss a cruise ship. Well, calling it a ship is a bit of hyperbole, it was really a boat trip of about 200 people. I was late for the boat sailing time and called my friend who was the host, expecting, being a Bengali he would empathize. When I arrived the boat was still in anchor waiting for my arrival at the jetty. Did I have any remorse? Not really, all the people in the boat were after all Bengalis and I found out that I was not the only one arriving late.
I realize, I have a problem and I am giving serious thoughts on how to alleviate it. The California company 23andme offers a ray of hope. You can spit in a tube and send it for scanning a million different points of your genome-a person’s genetic code. While tipping you off to potential decease risks it can also point out to the potential disposition of your traits. It is just possible that it can identify my DNA, predisposed to the habitual and compulsive Bengali lateness and may even suggest a cure. For a meager $299.00 charge per test it is worth a shot.