We were standing inside the 13th century clock tower in the beautifully preserved medieval city of Bern. It is the kind of place where it seems entirely appropriate that time should have a governor, and that this person should be a neat old Swiss German gentleman.
The Swiss sense of time is a thing of wonder for most visitors from India. It is almost incomprehensible that a whole country can run like clockwork.
“They sell tickets for long distance trains where you have to change trains, and the time for changeover is four or five minutes!” I told my parents after returning home in India. They have never travelled abroad. They were astounded. How was it possible that trains running between faraway cities could be so perfectly synchronised, not in theory, but in everyday practice? And that this system should work without mishap?
In the massive, heaving, chaotic city of 20.7 million people where I live, Mumbai, we have a great local train system that mostly works, but on an average, 10 people a day die falling off the trains, or trying to walk across the tracks. If we added the scramble of quick changeovers for connections, the bodies would pile up.
Marcus Marti, the “governor of time”, has been doing his job since 1978. The clock tower of Bern is his office. His main jobs, Marti said, were to make sure that the clock was always running—“It must never stop”—and to make sure it ran accurately. “I have given myself a tolerance of half a minute,” he said.
The antique clock traces its history back to a world long before electricity or the steam engine had been invented. It was a world without most of the things that animate our daily lives today. There was no television, phone, computer, car, airplane, air conditioning, electrical lighting, or tap water in every home. Even the pendulum clock had not yet been invented in 1405 when the first mechanical clock took its place of honour in Bern’s clock tower.
“This is not the first clock inside here,” Marti told us. “It is the second one.”
Before its first clock, the tower had already had a long and colourful history. The city of Bern was founded in 1191. The first city wall came up in the early 1200s. The tower was then the centrepiece of the city’s walled fortifications, and the main gate to the city. After the city expanded in the following century, the tower became a prison for “priests’ whores”, women convicted of sexual relations with priests.
eligion was the focus of life and the source of temporal as well as spiritual power in the world in those days. The Crusades were on, and great armies were marching to distant battles under the banners of competing religions. The year of Bern’s founding, 1191, was also the year when a battle that resounds through history was fought between the Christian and Muslim armies of Richard the Lionheart and Saladin, the legendary Kurdish general and king of the Ayyubid dynasty, whose father had been forced out of Tikrit in Iraq and found refuge in Aleppo in Syria–the epicentre now of a war driving millions of mostly Muslim refugees out of Syria, with consequences for politics in Europe.
Inside the clock tower, it was silent except for the clicks and clacks of the medieval time machine, and the measured tones of Marcus Marti’s voice.
“This clockwork was built in 1530, since the old one was no longer working correctly. It was an embarrassment for the government of Bern. You must imagine, this tower had a golden bell, it was representing the town to visitors, but the clock was not working!” Marti continued. “So the government decided to build a new one.”
The “new one” is the one that he now looks after, the one that we are now looking at, 486 years later. It is the one that Chinese and Japanese tour-groups line up before to watch and videograph the spectacle that occurs at the striking of every hour, for this clock does not merely strike the hours. It gives every hour a ceremonial send-off. First, a mechanical rooster crows. Then, a figure of a jester—also part of the clock’s cast of mechanical characters—strikes a bell. The jester, of course, is merely jesting; the hour has not yet fully passed. The jester’s joking bell is the signal for a parade of mechanical bears around the clock’s face. They are symbols of Bern; the bear is the city’s insignia. Then, the rooster crows a second time. The show ends when the figure of Chronos, Greek god of time, gives the signal, and the old bell of the astronomical clock tolls the hour.
The rule of Chronos now extends over the world. He is a great god; who could be greater than the God of Time? Yet, he was not always so all-powerful. Back in the days of his youth, when he appeared in ancient Greece, he was not the solitary ruler of all time. The ancient Greeks had two gods of time—Chronos, holding an hourglass in his hand, represented the time that was counted and measured and went sequentially from one hour to the next.
Kairos, with winged feet, was the god of the right or opportune moment. Chronos was quantitative, Kairos was qualitative. Chronos was the time of merchants, and even more, of money lenders and bankers. Kairos was closer to religion, spirituality, art and love.
Before any bell came to ring the hours in Bern’s clock tower, there were bells that rang in churches across the Christian world. The Muslims had their own equivalent in the call of the muezzin from mosque towers. It was Chronos in the service of Kairos. The believers had to be gathered for prayer at the right times.
Seven giant bells from a set of nine that weigh a total of 30,000 kilos still ring on special occasions such as Easter Sunday and Christmas Eve in the cathedral of Bern, which is billed as “Switzerland’s largest ecclesiastical building”. It is a short walk from the clock tower; its towering spire can be seen from the clock tower windows. Construction started in 1421 on the site where an older church with a church bell stood. The work went on for centuries. The spire was finally completed in 1893. With god’s work, there could be no hurry. After all, god’s time is eternity; unlike mere mortals, He is not rushed by the steps of death hurrying near.
The clock tower is comparatively a far more modest structure, with far more modest bells. It got its name from the bells—in Bernese German, the clock tower is called Zeitglogge, which means “time bell”. The clock mechanism now keeps time using a pendulum, a principle invented in the 16th century by the great Galileo Galilei, who was declared a heretic and placed under house arrest by the Catholic Church during the Inquisition for daring to suggest that the earth was not the centre of the universe. Those were different times.
We ask Marti how he ensures the Zeitglogge is keeping time correctly. “I check with the time on my handy phone,” he says.
he mobile phone is very much in evidence outside the tower too, among the groups of Chinese and Japanese tourists, several of them taking selfies. We walk past them. We are two Indians and one Swiss French man. Each of our cultures has a different sense of time. Even the number of hours in a day, and the length of each of those hours, varied in our lands a thousand years ago. There were different units of measurement, and time itself was measured locally in every town, not standardised across countries and coordinated across continents.
Sundials tell the local time in every place. With sundials, Zurich and Geneva would have a time difference of around five minutes. Mumbai and Shillong would have a time difference of over one and a half hours. There could be no Indian Standard Time, or Central European Time, which Switzerland follows, or Coordinated Universal Time, which the world follows, without the mechanical clock that erases the natural differences in sunrise and sunset hours from one place to the next.
Standardisation, the first step towards homogenisation, is now as automatic and easy as Marcus Marti checking his mobile phone to set the Bern tower clock. But the centuries have left their mark on how people in different places deal with time, in the years of life before time deals with them.
I remember reading a passage by the Polish journalist and writer Ryszard Kapuscinski in which he is asking people somewhere in Africa when the bus will go. They look at him strangely, as if he has asked something especially silly, and reply, “The bus will go when it is full”. It makes perfect sense to me as an Indian. I have experienced the same principle in operation in Northeast India.
When I was growing up in Shillong in the 1980s, taking the city bus to school was a certain kind of torture. The school bell inevitably rang on time, and I was not an early riser. I would land up at the bus stop in an impatient rush, strapped for time. The bus drivers, however, had all the time in the world, and disdain for the clock. Their only concern was about the space that needed to be filled. Full was a matter of perception. The vehicle was full when the driver felt it was full.
Things have not changed much to this day. Even now, the private buses, shared Tata Sumo taxis, and vans that run between small towns across Northeast India operate on the same principle.
The region is one of great diversity. There are about 220 languages spoken there. Numerous diverse cultures form a complex web. The stranger might only see a superficial similarity; the insider knows that beyond the similarity lie ancient differences. Yet, in their laissez-faire attitude towards following the clock, the many otherwise different peoples of Northeast India are quite similar.
The map of places where people show a relaxed attitude towards time would extend far beyond Northeast India. It would cover most of India outside the metropolitan cities. Globally, it would stretch to large parts of the continents of Asia, Africa and South America. The aboriginal areas of Australia and the pockets of North America with ‘Red Indian’ populations would be part of the same easygoing territory.
These are places where capitalism, riding on modernity, has not quite completed its project of reshaping the human mind to its own needs. It is a work in progress.
natomically modern human beings emerged on Earth around 200,000 years ago, according to paleo-anthropolgists. The first glimmers of what came to be known as human civilisation–agriculture and religion–have been traced back to around 12,000 years ago. The first kingdoms with some of the trappings of a state came into being around 5,500 years ago.
The mechanical clock came much later. It was invented by a Chinese mathematician, I Hsing, around 725 AD. The first portable watch is believed to be one made by a German clockmaker, Peter Henlein, in 1504.
Against the backdrop of human history, what we call modern civilisation is barely the blink of an eye.
For most of our history as a species, everywhere on this planet, time meant days and nights, and seasons. It came, with the growth of civilisational complexity, to include festivals synchronised with the changing of the seasons. Ancient Greek, Roman, Chinese, Mesopotamian, and Indian cultures all celebrated the spring festival, for example. It was celebrated with song and dance everywhere.
This business of dancing to the ticking of the clock is a very recent development.
The ancient Greek, Roman, Chinese, Mesopotamian and Indian festivals honoured the gods. Time, like life itself, was believed to be a gift of God.
In the Hindu tradition, it was divided into the Yugas, or ages. Each Yuga was reckoned in celestial years; a celestial year was 360 human years. The shortest of the Yugas, the Kali Yuga, the one we are currently in, was reckoned to be 432,000 human years.
The concept of Yuga has survived the ages. The word is still in common use, though its meaning is not as precise as it used to be.
The word for the equivalent of the hour—the muhurta—is also still current, at least in Bengali. It is equivalent to 48 minutes, though the colloquial meaning of muhurta is moment. It survives, also, in Bollywood and Indian weddings. The “mahurat” is the auspicious moment of commencement, a contemporary example of the sort of time represented by the lost Greek god Kairos
Most people in traditional societies around the world did not have clocks or watches in their homes until about a hundred years ago, or less. Poor people in most of the world outside a few pockets of Western Europe and North America did not experience the rule of clock time in their daily lives until very recently. It was only at sea, in the isolated, self-contained world of the sail ship (using hourglasses) that clock time ruled the lives of ordinary seamen from around the world—they needed to work shifts.
On land, things happened by and by. Outside the hurly burly of big cities, in many parts of the world, they still do. In Northeast India, the Assamese have a popular word for it: lahe lahe; slowly slowly. It is a local variant of Indian Stretchable Time, which is what IST is known, only half in jest, to be.
In IST we don’t say things like “let’s meet at 5.05 p.m. on Friday”. We say, “Hey, let’s meet around five-ish on Friday…But I’ll call or message to confirm…or you call, whatever…”
And Friday could actually mean Friday-ish, too, like 5 becomes 5-ish. The sharp edges around all these times and dates disappear; they become nice, soft and a trifle hazy.
he very thought is alien in Switzerland. “We are used to things being on time,” says the Mayor of Bern, Alexander Tschappat. A bespectacled, silver-haired man of 64, he has about him an air of authority and the briskness of a man used to making good use of his time.
“When you call somebody to fix your apartment, and you say 5 o’clock, you mean 5”, he says. “There are mentalities where being late is part of the game. Here being on time is normal.” If the bus is scheduled to arrive in one minute, “we know that in one minute it is coming,” he says. Perhaps he spots something approaching a mix of wonderment and panic on my face at this pronouncement, because he assures me, “We are not prisoners of time, we live it.”
It is certain that the Swiss, like people in neighbouring areas of Europe, did not live with this kind of consciousness of time until about 400 years ago. The minute hand appeared on clocks only after 1577, when it was invented by the Swiss clockmaker Jost Burgi, who later worked in Prague with Johannes Kepler. Apart from Bern, Prague is the other city famous in continental Europe for its clock tower. The earliest clocks did not have clock faces; they only had bells. The hour hand arrived some centuries before the minute hand, but the bells dividing the day initially rang only eight times each day, not 24 times, following the Roman and Jewish traditions of dividing the day and night into four parts each. We owe the ever finer divisions of time, and the proliferation of the clock, to the forces of commerce.
Like space, time was known to be free and endless. The greatest trick of capitalism is that it has managed to colonise both; it has transformed endless space and limitless time into scarce resources. The rise of the current globally dominant way of life, which we call modern, coincides with the rise and spread of the mechanical clock.
Medievalist scholar Jaques le Goff, in his book Time, Work, and Culture in the Middle Ages, writes:
“The communal clock was an instrument of economic, social, and political domination wielded by the merchants who ran the commune… This was the beginning of the organisation of work, a distant precursor of Taylorism (the principles or practice of scientific management and work efficiency as practised in a system known as the Taylor System), which Georges Friedmann has shown was also an instrument of class.”
According to le Goff, the same process responsible for the rationalisation of time was also responsible for its secularisation. “The clocks, which, everywhere, were erected opposite church bell towers, represent the great revolution of the communal movement in the time domain”.
Workers did not allow this revolution that robbed them of their time without a fight. There were frequent worker uprisings aimed at silencing the “Werkglocke” or workers’ clock. At first, in some places, the workers prevailed. For instance, at Therouanne in France on March 16, 1367, the dean and chapter had to promise the “workers, fullers and other mechanics” to silence “forever the workers’ bell in order that no scandal or conflict be born in city and church as a result of the ringing of a bell of this type”, le Goff writes.
Today, of course, the bell that summons workers to work is in people’s hands, and none of us can let it go. It is the ringing of the mobile phone as it announces the arrival of emails, messages and calls. We are slaves to its sounds and vibrations.
Tschappat, the mayor and Member of Parliament, is a member of the Social Democratic Party of Switzerland, a Leftist party. I ask him how life in his city has changed during his lifetime. Life now is much better in Bern than it was 40 years ago, he says. “When I was a kid chocolate was rare, holidays were not possible for everybody, few people had cars and televisions. Today most people can take holidays, can afford cars and more or less luxury goods. Concerning wealth, it changed a lot,” he says.
Quality of life also changed a lot for the better, according to Tschappat. “When I was young, the water was not so clean. Now you can drink water out of the river. We didn’t want to live in the cities, we used to want to live out in the countryside. Now cities have realised that they need to reduce traffic, take care of parks, of social institutions, culture...now people want to come back to live in the cities,” he says.
So what is still the same? “What is still the same is that the Bernese are still proud of their city, are friendly.”
In the office next to his cabin, located in a beautiful old medieval stone building near the cathedral overlooking the river Aare, there’s a poster that announces, “Bern hat zeit fur sie”. Bern has time for you. The Bernese have a reputation for slowness, and it is said to extend even to their speech; they talk more slowly than people from Zurich, I had been told by the Zurichers.
“I think we are the city with the lowest speed. If you are in Zurich, or Geneva, there is a rush, a hurry. Bernese people don’t rush,” says Tschappat. “There’s a joke that Bernese people are the slowest people in the world,” he adds. He refutes the joke in proper scientific fashion. “There was a study done and it was found that the slowest walking people were in Malawi and fastest walking people were in Singapore.”
The unhurried pace of Bern is something the mayor ascribes to the work people do. “We are a city of administration, of services. We are not a financial district. We are not under the same daily pressures. We have a very interesting diversity of jobs but we are not under the same pressures as cities that go with the market,” he says.
The market is an insatiable beast forever in a rush. Time is money in the global financial market. Money itself has become a disembodied abstraction, a spirit made up of bits and bytes that flows through the nervous system of the internet and jerks to life the many automata sitting at its ends at computer terminals around the world. Day and night, this spirit is always on the move, roaming the earth from end to end. It has no rest. Time does not stop and the job of converting it to money is without halt or end.
The merchant’s time, which replaced the world where time was measured in seasons and festivals, became, after the victory of the clock tower over the church bell, a kind of “chronological net in which daily life was caught”, in the memorable words of Professor le Goff. The net has become finer and finer over the centuries. Before the late 1600s and the proliferation of clocks with minute hands, a few large minutes could slip through it. Now it catches even seconds.
We said our goodbyes to mayor Tschappat, who had been generous with his time, giving us a whole hour of it. Thanking him, we left the building, to visit the Bern cathedral a short distance away, and climb its tower to see its massive old bells, now reduced to tourist curiosities. From the church spire, the beautiful city of ordered stone stretched serene around us.
ear the cathedral, a black vehicle like an autorickshaw with the word “Einstein” painted on it stood parked. It belonged to the Café Einstein, a charming café located on the ground floor of the apartment building where the scientist Albert Einstein used to stay. Einstein was then a clerk at the patent office in Bern. It was there, in that little apartment on the first floor, that he had formulated the Special Theory of Relativity in 1905. The same year, he published a paper on “A heuristic point of view concerning the production and transformation of light”. This was the work on the photoelectric effect for which he won the Nobel Prize for Physics.
Andreas Lagenbacher, a retired gentleman who lives in an apartment between the clock tower and Einstein’s house, says he remembers the time he visited the apartment years ago. “There I saw through the window, the Zeitglogge. I was struck by the idea, a little chauvinistic, that the theory of relativity could only be developed in Bern. It is so static, so monolithic...a place with so much stone...that you have to heave out time,” he says.
In Einstein’s apartment, which has been frozen in time like most of the old town of Bern, things are more or less as they were when he was living there. A dining table covered with a white tablecloth stands at the centre. A grandfather clock has pride of place between the two windows which overlook the street. The clock tower is barely 200 metres away. Einstein would have passed through the clock tower gate on his way to work every day.
In Einstein’s theory of relativity, time does funny things. Clocks are influenced by motion; a clock runs slower for a traveller travelling at speeds comparable to the speed of light. But it is not the clock that is running slower; it is time itself that has slowed down relative to the stationary observer. Scientists call it “time dilation”.
Space also loses its rigidity, its absoluteness, in Einstein’s theory. A metre is not always a metre; it can contract, if you move it fast enough.
We walked slowly, like Bengalis, like Bernese, from the cathedral, past the Cafe Einstein autorickshaw, to the park that overlooks the Aare river. It was a sunny summer day. People sat on the benches; children ran around, playing; some men were playing a game that looked like marbles with cannonballs.
I remembered a previous visit to the place some years ago, with another friend. She and I had sat at a restaurant overlooking the river, on a similar sunny day. After a wonderful meal, too full to walk fast, I had dawdled. In a hurry to catch a French Open final on TV, she had walked off, leaving me behind, and boarded the train back to Zurich. We had cancelled our plans to travel together after that, and gone our separate ways.
I looked down at the river, in which many Bernese like to jump in on summer days, to be swept along for some distance before climbing out to sun themselves. For a few moments, I let my mind flow with the memory of that previous visit of years ago. Then an internal alarm made me look at the time on my mobile phone, and the two of us, prisoners caught in the chronological net, began the walk back to the train station to catch the train that would inevitably be on time.
(The trip to Switzerland was supported by a research grant from the Swiss Arts Council, Pro Helvetia.