“Wake up! It is already 6.30am!” nudges my adolescent cousin. I pull down the light blanket off my face and squint. The sun is already overhead here in Guwahati, Assam’s capital and the most cosmopolitan city in the India’s North East.

The sun rises in Assam just before 6am in winter. By 6.30am, the city is bathed in a golden glow. Buses are already plying on the street. The stove at the roadside tea stall is being pumped. A few men wearing just the gaamosa (Assamese gamcha) brush their teeth in the backyard of a building which serves as a car wash area.

I witness life unfold from the window, but my body, accustomed to waking up at 8am in Mumbai and witnessing the same rhythms unfold at that hour, is yet to adjust to this new clock shift. It has been two weeks and my survival strategy to the racing sun is to tell myself that the clock is an hour and half behind here. So, when I wake up at 6am, I tell myself that it is actually 7.30am.

At 8am, I finish a cup of black tea with biscuits and read two newspapers. The news about the refusal of the Central government to allow a separate time zone for North East India hits home.

Pending demand

Indian Standard Time, calculated with reference to 82.5° E longitude passing through Allahabad district in Uttar Pradesh, was chosen as the official time for the entire country after Independence. Before that existed two time zones – Bombay Time in the country’s west was 4:51:00 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time, and Calcutta Time in the east was 5:30:21 hours ahead of GMT.

The long-surviving uniformity has posed an inconvenience in a nation that spreads more than 2,933 kilometres over 28 degrees of longitude. In the North East, the sun is out before 4am IST in June and sets by 5pm IST in November.

For long, North Easterners have demanded a separate time zone which would allow them to start the day an hour earlier and save that much wasted time. But the Centre obdurately refuses. Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi has pointed out that adherence to IST results in a loss of daylight hours in the state and a concomitant decline in productivity. Going by one study alone, 1.2% to 1.5% of total power consumed could be saved if this region moved its clocks ahead by an hour. Again, New Delhi pays no heed.

No wonder then, the tea estates have, since British times, been working on an advanced clock.

Different pace

After tea, I contemplate reading the book from the previous night and toy with the idea of reconnecting with friends in Mumbai. But then, they might be either asleep or rushing to workplace: calling them up could invite abrupt goodbyes or curses. So I walk around the house, pull out some old Assamese books from bookshelves, watch what is being cooked in the kitchen.

Only after about four hours since sunrise and a breakfast of roti and sabzi, I sense the world outside off to work, laahe laahe (slowly slowly). For most of those who need to “rush” to work, the breakfast is a complete meal with rice, dal, vegetables and fish. The sense of pace is still slow for my Mumbai sensibilities. The rush hour feels like one only because of the roads choking with honking cars and buses.

I need a local SIM card. “Wait until the shops open at 10am,” I am told by my cousins. At 10am, I am happy to be finally out, as in my mind, it is 11.30am. “But the shops will open laahe laahe, around 10.30am,” they clarify. At the shop, I submit the documents and wait until evening for the activation. But no text message arrives. A cousin says that evening activation actually means next morning.

Night comes calling

The next day, the same laahe laahe life unfolds. I fix meetings and find myself embarrassingly 10 minutes late for them. Thankfully for me, the planned hour-long meetings drag longer, helping me understand this region better. By 3pm, the cacophony of birds is audible in the darkening green patches of Guwahati. At 4.30pm, it is dark. By 5pm, it is night. A sense of sleepiness creeps in. I avoid calling up the ageing parents in Mumbai lest I disturb their late afternoon nap.

I reach home at 8pm and am assailed by a barrage of questions about “how I got so late”. By 10pm, the lights are out in some homes. Awake in my bed and staring at the mosquito net, I feel the inability of the rest of India to understand this region. Meanwhile, the SIM card is still not activated.

Next morning, at 9am, I desperately call the cousin who had accompanied me to the mobile store to put in an influential word with his friend. He senses my stress. “It is winter time. Shops won’t open before 11am.”

After 48 hours, the SIM card is finally activated. In this time, I have read one book, filled many pages in my diary and, above all, made a longer to-do list. A reality check greets me once in a while – when I wait for the bus to move after the conductor is confident of having filled it to the gills with passengers – reminding me of my purpose of leaving Mumbai: to lead a slower life. And, when at home I am asked every two hours if I want tea, I too have learnt to reply, “Yes, I will have some, laahe laahe.”