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City Places for City People
Time and Reality in Bangladesh

by Debra Efroymson

In June 2009, the Government of Bangladesh implemented daylight savings time in order to save electricity, of which there is consistently more demand than supply, and thus frequent power cuts (what we call loadshedding).

I, for one, was thrilled: in the summer, it starts to get quite hot (and when people in the tropics say hot, they mean hot) by 7 a.m., so I wanted to walk my dogs at 5:30 or 6, but nobody wants to open the downstairs gate for me at that hour. Besides, who wants to get up at 5:30, even if it is light by then? 5:30 would become 6:30, and voilà, I could have my walk an hour earlier.

The clocks sprang forward, and I sprang out of bed early. This was quite marvellous until the fall, when I was having to get up in the dark in order to finish my walk before the school traffic jams started at 7:30 a.m. Had nobody in the government realized that daylight savings requires adjustments not just once, but twice a year? Should I tell them?

And so the weeks dragged into months, and we shook our heads at the absurdity of it all. Much grumbling was heard about this crazy daylight savings business that meant children were being thrown into rickshaws in the night in order to get to school. Finally, the government announced that it was going to fall back?on midnight of 31 December. No doubt the New Years' revellers were delighted, as they were essentially getting two midnights, but I was hardly thrilled at the prospect of an extra hour of fireworks, relieved though I was about the clocks finally being adjusted.

And then, no surprise here, came the announcement that the government was not going to change the clocks in the spring, due to "public interest."

I have adjusted: I now get up at 5:30 most days, am a bit slow in getting ready, and bully someone into opening the gate for me. But it does seem a terrible waste of a beautiful hour of daylight that most people sleep through it.

But this is only half the story. When the clocks changed, people asked me whether our office time would also change. "Excuse me?" "Well, since people are used to coming in at 9:30, and 9:30 is now 10:30, should we start the office at 8:30?" The same for meals. When I told people to follow the clocks, they looked concerned: but our bodies know that isn't the correct time! Do we really have to do everything off by an hour? There was no convincing them that clocks are artificial, as opposed to the natural cycles of the sun. Most people referred to what the adjusted clocks showed as "government time" as opposed to real time; some people insisted on keeping a clock set to "real time" so as not to get confused.

In the villages, farmers were apparently concerned: how will the sun know when to rise? It all had a rather apocalyptic feel to it. Government had messed with something of deep significance. I attributed it at first to the typical superstition of those with little education, but how am I to know the original reaction of people in western countries when daylight savings was first introduced? And that people in the West are not beyond superstition is reinforced whenever I visit a building or am on a plane with no 13th floor or 13th row. We think we are governed by science or technology, yet people are still afraid of the number 13? Then there was the Y2K scare. Apocalypse will strike when the numbers roll over?

So perhaps I should stop laughing at the Bangladeshis and accept that, as Stephen Jay Gould wrote, the world has become too complex for the extent of evolution of people's brains. We weren't meant to live in a world like this, and as a result, we react bizarrely. And so, if I may be allowed a bit of a leap, it seems to go with US elections: despite all I read about the effect of different policies on the poor and middle class, despite the obvious fact that the rich and corporations need to be forced to start paying real taxes again, many people will simply vote in the simplest way: under Bush I got a raise, under Obama I lost my home. Or simpler yet, by the price of gas. It doesn't much matter if we live in Bangladesh, the US or wherever else; if we can't learn to interpret complexity, we are condemned to live with some pretty crazy results.

Debra Efroymson