What is time?

Picture by Nile. Under Creative Commons Licence

“What is time?”

Apparently I asked this question to my Dad when I was a little kid.
He was just ready to leave for the office, and I wanted to talk to him. And he told me “Later son, I have no time now.”

That’s when I asked him “What is time, Appa?”
He promised to get back in the evening and answer that.

That evening after he came back, had dinner and relaxed listening to the radio, I asked him again “What is time?”

I had just started learning numbers, and I could count up to 100. He sat me down, removed the large clock from the wall and explained about day and night, 24 hours a day and learned how to read the clock and tell time. I felt good and went to sleep.

Next day as he was ready to leave for office I asked him “But What is time, Appa?” “Explain it to him, ” he told my mother and left for office.

After he left my mother took me to see one of her cousins. They were very close and met often. When we entered her house, I noticed it was 3 o’clock. I proudly told my aunt that. When we left, it was 5 o’clock. I declared the time again.

“Oh! He knows how to keep time” laughed my aunt.
“What is keeping time?” I asked my mother. She did not say anything.

We came home, and I said I was hungry. She said she would cook something. I felt quite hungry and complained, “Why are you taking so long Amma?”

“What do you mean so long?”

“I want you to give me something fast.”

“What do you mean fast?” It was my father’s voice. He had just returned from office.

“Oh, Appa! You are back early” I said.

“What do you mean by early?” asked my Dad.

Both my parents never defined ‘time’ for me in exact words. But they helped me understand the concept. I soon understood being on time. “He said he will be here at 7:00 o’clock and he is here at seven o’clock.” I understood being late because one of my uncles would always come 30 or 40 minutes later than what he promised. Every body made fun of him.

I remember one vacation down south to visit my grandmother. They lived in a place called Virudhunagar. Her brother was running a lorry transport company. He took me by lorry to Madurai. He pointed out to a TVS Bus and said ‘You know you can set your watch by a TVS Bus’ “

“What do you mean ‘set your watch’?” He took out his wristwatch, and we waited near the bus stand. The timetable said that the next TVS bus was due at 3:45. Sure enough, it arrived exactly when the big clock in the bus stand showed 3:45.

My uncle’s watch showed 3:40, and he corrected it. For the first time, I heard the word punctuality. I came back and told my Dad about TVS time and punctuality.

remember these conversations vividly because everything was woven into some incident. I was not being taught anything. They helped me observe and understand as they explained.

As I grew older, I began to grapple with work. Constant conflict between what I wanted to do – sleep, play, go out, etc. What I had to do – get up, get ready, finish home work, etc. My Dad set a rule that I must get up by 6:00 am. I just had to. Only during vacations I could get up a little later.

Similarly, I had to be back from play at 7:00 0’clock in the evening. If I were late, my mother would come looking for me.

One evening my Dad noticed that I was getting too distracted at my study desk. He taught me how to study and finish my lessons on time.

I remember how he helped me plan my studies before an exam. We had gone to a wedding. We were sitting on the floor for the traditional South Indian wedding feast, being served on a banana leaf.

“Wait till they serve everything. Don’t start till the serve rice & ghee” he advised. I was ready to plunge, but he held me back.

“What will you eat first?”

“What I like most” I replied.

“What happens to what you don’t like?”

“I won’t eat it.”

“But you are not allowed to waste anything.”

“So what do I do?”

“They have served small portions of each. So first eat what you don’t like. Then eat what you like.”

“But if I eat what I don’t like, they will think I like it and serve that again.”

He laughed and said “they won’t. They will ask first, and you say no.’”

“If I said no, they will feel bad.”

“Try today and let us see what happens”

When we finished both our leaves were nice and clean. Nothing was wasted. When we got home, we rested for a while, and he called me.

“When are your quarterly exams?”

“In October.”

“What month is it now?”


“So we have almost two months. How many weeks to a month?”

“August 5 weeks. September 4 weeks. October 5 weeks.”

“Don’t count October because your exam starts on the 5th October. You only have August and September.”

“9 weeks then, ” I said.

“How will you study now for your exams?”

“I will study everything.”

“That you should. What will you study first, what will you study later?”

“I will study my favourite subjects first.”

“That is a good idea. Is there some other way to do it?”

“I will study the easy subjects first.”

“Hard subjects later?”


“What do you mean easy and hard subjects?”

“I understand easy subjects well. I can finish them fast.”

“What do you mean by hard subjects?”

“I find them difficult to understand and remember.”

“So what happens?”

“I have to study them again & again”


“It takes more time..”

“Remember today’s wedding feast?”

“Yes. I loved the Payasam.”

“What else do you remember?”

“ I don’t remember anything..”

“What did we do about things you did not like?”

“Yes. I have to finish them first.”

“So what do we do about your hard subjects?”

“Study them first?”

“Absolutely right. Go and play. Come back home by 7.”

When I returned after my play, I noticed some big rolls of paper, colour pencils, a foot rule on the centre table.

“What is this Amma?”

“Don’t know. Appa is doing something with it.”

A little while later my Dad returned. He had gone shopping. He brought some pedas – my favourite sweet. We finished dinner, and he asked,

“Are you feeling sleepy?”

“No Appa.”

“OK. Bring your school bag. Show me your school time table.”

He asked me to explain the timetable to him. I knew it by heart. So I tried to impress him by talking about it without referring to it. I got it right, and he was pleased.

“What would happen if there was no time table?”

“I think there will be confusion.”

“What do you mean by confusion?”

“No body will know who has to do what or when. It will be like a traffic jam.”

“Wonderful. What happens in a traffic jam?”

“Nothing moves. Every body gets upset.”

“Very good. I like your idea of a traffic jam. What should we do to avoid a traffic jam?”

“We should all follow traffic rules.”

“Excellent. In school, you must follow a timetable. In the roads, you must follow some rules. Otherwise, nothing will move. Is that right?”

“Right Appa”

“So what should you do to get ready for your exams?”

“Prepare a time table?”


We spent the next three evenings where he helped me understand how to plan a day. How many hours a day is available after taking away time for sleep, bathing, eating, school and play.

Then he asked me to work with him on preparing a study timetable. We did that. It was a large sheet of paper, which looked like a calendar. There were large squares, subjects, timings, etc. That was my first ever exercise at planning.

“Plan for what is available and yours” he had said.

Today I think what he did almost 60 years ago was way ahead of its time. It was fun working together. He made it look easy. He made me feel good. He made me think of examples to express what I understood.

As summer holidays approach there is going to be a lot of demand on everyone’s time. One way to manage is to wotk together and decide what, why, where, when and how to spend the time together. It is a great opportunity to bond together and learn together. Don’t miss this opportunity. Have fun. Because fun, lubricates learning.

(This piece appeared first in a magazine called Parents’ Edge. Don’t remember when.)

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