Jean-Paul Sartre On ‘An Odd Moment In The Afternoon’

In Jean-Paul Sartre‘s Nausea, Antoine Roquentin offers us a characteristically morose reflection about a very particular hour of the day:

Three o’clock. Three o’clock is always too late or too early for anything you want to do. An odd moment in the afternoon. Today it is intolerable. [New Directions edition, 2007; pp. 14]

Monsieur Roquentin is right. Three o’clock is a pretty terrible time of day.

Growing up in New Delhi, three o’clock very quickly became associated with the hottest part of the summer afternoon. (New Delhi’s summers boast of temperatures regularly rising to 110-115 degrees Fahrenheit (434-46 Celsius).) Four o’clock, because of its proximity to five o’clock, which signaled the start of the evening (that’s when folks rising from their afternoon siesta drank their restorative teas) conveyed a slightly benign air; two o’clock, because of its proximity to one o’clock, inherited some of its life-giving and nourishing aspects. But three o’clock was equidistant from these temporal locations; it seemed remote, inaccessible, forbidding; it was the time by which the roads were sure to have emptied. The sun beat down; the hot winds blew; exposure was foolhardy. Best to hunker down at home and ride out the storm.

When I moved to the East Coast of the United States in 1987, I experienced the sharply diminished daylight of this northern latitude in my first fall, when the clocks were set back from the Daylight Savings Time I had been enjoying on my arrival in August. Now, three o’clock was again a zenith of sorts, but a rather depressing one. I could sense the weak, angular rays of the sun were doing little good against the encroaching cold, and I knew that by four o’clock, the dimness would be sharply pronounced. Night would follow all too soon. The fall and winter evenings where when the winds sharpened; three o’clock now became the last brief station of respite before the misery began. And because I was never much of a night owl, given to working late into the night, three o’clock also signaled to me that time was running out on opportunities to be productive. I do not think it is a coincidence incidentally, that Roquentin offers us these thoughts on Friday, 2nd February–a winter afternoon. All too often, like Roquentin, “I would know in advance the day was lost.” Though, unlike him, I did not ever think that “I shall do nothing good, except, perhaps, after nightfall.”

As may be evident from my notes above, I associate moods–almost personalities, if you will–with times of the day. Three o’clock has always had a bit of a hostile air to it. In my childhood summers, it evoked fear; in my adult winters, it signals a particular kind of despondency and melancholia. There is, however, a silver lining in all of this. Now that I’m a father, three o’clock has come to signal to me that time when, on the days that I work at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Library in Manhattan, I must put away my books, sit down for my afternoon meditation session, and on completing it, head to the subways to take a train back to Brooklyn and pick up my daughter from daycare.

Sometimes, I suppose, there still some things you can get done after that dreaded afternoon hour.

A Failure of Kindness

The George Saunders graduation speech currently making the rounds of the Internet reminds me of a failure of kindness of my own.  I have committed many, of course, too many to remember or recount; I pick on this one, because, quite frankly, besides being memorable in all the wrong ways, it is a little less painful to recount than others in my oeuvre.

In 2005, I traveled to India for a vacation and arrived to find New Delhi in the grip of its usual summer baking.  On my second day in the city, I hailed an auto-rickshaw and asked to be taken to a friend’s residence a few miles away. I knew where I was headed; I wasn’t lost; this was ‘my’ city after all, even though I hadn’t lived in it for eighteen years.

A few minutes later, I noticed we were driving away from the direction that I thought we should have been headed in. I held my tongue for a second, and then queried the driver–rather querulously if I may say so–‘Where are we going?’ The driver replied, briefly, ‘We need to go in this direction.’ I do not know why I did not bother to inquire further, to employ a principle of charity, and grant him the benefit of the doubt. For a second, I imagined myself ripped off, in my ‘hometown’, by someone who imagined me to be a hapless tourist.  Perhaps I was tired of being told that I was ‘out of touch’ in many dimensions, that I had lost the capacity to relate to the realities of what had once been the familiar, perhaps I was overly keen to assert my ‘authenticity.’ Insecurities, every one of them.

I snapped. And began a loud tirade, mercifully brief, of how I would not be made a fool of, how I knew what time it was.

The auto-rickshaw driver, now with a pained expression on his face, spoke again, softly and perhaps even a little apologetically, ‘We have to go in this direction. There’s no exit permitting us to reverse direction for another half a mile.’ I looked around. He was right. The road I had traveled on many times as a teenager and even on my previous visits to the city had changed: there were new dividers, new sidewalks, new intersections. I was a stranger to it; I needed help getting around. And I was being given some. I just hadn’t seen it.

My indignation subsided, quickly replaced by a scorching shame. I mumbled an apology and attempted rapprochement. I asked him where he was from, sensing from his accent he was not a Delhi local. He wasn’t. He was a migrant, one of those many thousands that flock to the city to escape their impoverished homes, perhaps leaving families behind, resigned to scraping out a day-to-day existence on the margins of an indifferent urban landscape.

We chatted; I told him I was on vacation, in town to meet family and friends.  He asked me where I was visiting from. I told him; he asked me a bit about my life elsewhere.

A few minutes later, I was at my destination. He had taken the quickest, most efficient route possible under the circumstances. I paid up, added a tip, apologized again.

There are times, even now, when I remember the tone of his voice, responding to me when I first accused him of ripping me off, and I cannot but feel just a little miserable.

A Long, Hot, Sickened Journey

The worst of the heat might have receded from New York City but that’s not going to deter me from churning out another hot weather-related blog post. On this occasion, about a time when a combination of heat and a mysterious ailment combined to induce in me a misery that has, thankfully, not been rivaled since.

In 1979, I went on a schoolboys trip to a national park, one organized by my school. The trip was everything it was promised to be: though we missed out on spotting a tiger, we saw plenty of wildlife, swam in rivers, went on long hikes, and rounded off each day with a festive campfire. It was a boy’s dream; I loved every minute of it and was saddened by the dawning of its final days. Those entailed a long bus ride back home to New Delhi.

It was April, and the summer had settled in on North India. Daytime temperatures were already reaching into the high nineties (Fahrenheit) and past the hundred mark. The journey back, in a non-airconditioned bus, promised to be a  trying experience. It soon acquired a terrifying new dimension.

For by its commencement, I had become sick. Perhaps a stomach bug of some sort, but though there was pain and churning aplenty in my belly, there were no frequent trips to the bathroom. Instead, I felt weak and nauseous, with a head that spun furiously. I told my companions; little interest or sympathy was forthcoming. I informed the master in charge; he seemed nonplussed. Tired, worn out, and to be honest, a little scared, I withdrew–unmedicated–to a seat by a window, and waited.

Our bus drove on, on roads that were sometimes narrow, sometimes bumpy, sometimes dusty, past field and village and town. As the day progressed, so did the heat and my discomfort.  I kept the window open, hoping for a breeze or two, and sank into a sweat-lined heap at its base. I was sick, sick, sick; a bundle of desperate sensations, hoping for relief in any shape or form.

Toward the middle of the afternoon, we approached a scheduled halt. We would rest and partake of lunch in a park. My illness was now at a crest; I felt close to death, hideously miserable and discombobulated. I staggered out and took a few steps toward a shady spot beneath a tree.

And then, the miracle. I vomited spectacularly, bringing up a torrent of unprocessed material from my last meals. My company scattered, perhaps in fear, perhaps in awe. I swayed; my ability to stay on my feet still seemed in question. But a few seconds later, I felt better. The expulsion had, mysteriously and thankfully, possessed a cleansing quality.

A few minutes later, someone pressed a glass filled with crushed ice and a Coke into my hand. I drank it greedily–the sweetest nectar ever. I still had no appetite, but a cold, sweet drink was welcome.

Home was still several hours away, but for the rest of the drive home, though I still felt weak and exhausted, I was never as sick as I had been earlier in the day. I reached my destination at night, back into the arms of my concerned mother and a bemused father.

I still do not know what had afflicted me that day. And I still continue to hope that I will never, ever, approach the desperate depths of discomfort attained that day via a toxic combination of head-spinning nausea and heat.

Memories of Hot Summers Elsewhere

Talking about the weather is supposedly a concession, an admission that a conversation has run aground, spun off into irrelevancies; nothing, it seems, quite shows the lack of an agenda for an exchange of words like a discussion about the heat, the cold, the rain. Well, I admit defeat; I admit I’m tongue-tied and incoherent. This has been a hot summer in New York City, and its driven me to blogging about the heat. More to the point, what has finally sent me over the tipping edge was a rumor floated earlier this week that temperatures in the city would approach 104F. Because I spent the first twenty years of my life in climes calibrated by the Celsius scale, I occasionally still convert temperatures into that set of numbers, to ascertain whether my childhood reckonings of temperature extremes have been tickled or not. And 104F is the Fahrenheit equivalent of a grim marker in Celsius: 40C, the temperature at which, as a boy, I knew the real summer began.

I grew up in a very hot city: New Delhi. (A quick glance at a chart of world temperatures will show that it is, quite easily, the worlds hottest large city.) 40C came early in the year, as early as April, and you could experience 40C days into August. In between, the monsoon intervened, and its drenching showers brought some relief, but very often it would result in days marked by low-lying cloud, suffocating, stifling humidity and temperatures in the high nineties (in the mid to high thirties if we are talking Celsius). For the rest of the time, Delhi baked, day after day, in searing heat that enervated and exhausted, sending adult and child, when possible, into cool refuges, all the while hydrating themselves with any fluids at hand. (A simple injunction I received as a child was: ‘Drink a glass of water when you leave the house; drink another glass when you arrive at your destination.’) Airconditioners were rare; evaporative coolers common.

The serious heat began at finals time, and branded the vacations. School ended, and we retreated indoors. We were glad to not have to ride crowded, non-airconditioned school buses anymore, with their sweat-stained seats, but unless trips out of the city–to, hopefully, a salubrious ‘hill station‘–were planned, we faced the prospect of lengthy confinement at home, hemmed in by a cauldron of hot winds and glaring sunshine. Temperatures climbed into the nineties by 7AM or a little after, and after a few brief forays outside, the more prudent among us quickly retreated. The reckless often ventured out, even in the middle of the afternoon. Playtime at local parks in the evenings began late, after some nominal cooling.

Delhi summer nights and days were often made more miserable by the loss of electricity. To this day, I don’t think I have heard anything quite as terrifying as a ceiling fan grinding to a halt, its supply of electric charge cut off by an errant power grid. And nothing, and I mean nothing, will ever sound quite as sweet as the sound that came to me, as I would wait patiently outdoors in the warm summer night–dazed and confused after being woken up by a power failure–of dozens of cooler fans starting up in my street. That was bliss; every other human pleasure seemed insignificant in comparison.

Except perhaps, the taste of cold water after a stint in the sun.