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The Time Keeper by Mitch Albom—An Insight

Time. A subject that has plagued us from the very beginning of our existence. Though mankind acquiring the skill to measure time appears to be a godsend, all it really did was set us up for our own downfall. Life as we know it would come to a complete standstill without the concept of time.

There would be no way of determining when assignments were due, or how long vacations could be taken for. The fundamentals of science would be rattled at their very core, in the absence of the basis on which every experiment is conducted. Could we have still invented planes and cars without a way of measuring distance travelled over time taken?

Ancient Greek lore attributes the passing of the sun along the horizon every day to the god, Apollo. He keeps the sun tied to his chariot as he rides it in orbit around the Earth.

In The Time Keeper, Mitch Albom narrates the tale of how the seeds of curiosity had first been sown in the mind of Father Time himself. In this page-turner of a novel, one can find lurid descriptions of scenarios, and dialogues between characters so captivating, it feels like a movie unraveling before your eyes.

Yet, this is all done in such an eloquently-worded manner that it does not tax the brain. Thus, your attention stays firmly fixed on advancing in the three differing plot-lines that will eventually coalesce into one.

One of many cover designs for the book.

Before his life-altering discovery, Father Time was just a simple boy named Dor. By associating sounds to each of his fingers, he had become the first to learn how to count. These sounds would become numbers, and Dor would go on to spend the rest of his childhood, adolescence, and adulthood counting everything he could possibly find.

While his actions laid the foundation for what is now known as Mathematics, we must bear in mind that Dor lived in an age where brawn triumphed over brains. Society had no place for a man who would rather mark the position of the sun’s shadow with a stick than get his hands dirty. A childhood friend, his king approached him for help in constructing a tower to the Heavens.

Seizing control of villages no longer sufficed to abate his greed for domination.  It was his intent to climb above the clouds, where the gods lived, so he may slay them and conquer the world. Dor refused to comply to these absurd wishes. He explained to his king that it was the position of the sun in the skynot a battle between the sun and moon godsthat caused night and day. Not wanting any part in these theories that debunked all the beliefs he had possessed his entire life, he banished Dor and his family from the kingdom.

Living in exile, Dor and his wife, Alli, were left with no choice but to leave their children behind, knowing life in the wilderness was not for them. Memories flashed through Dor’s mind. He relived the moment his three little bundles of joy asked him if it were really true that he climbed up the hills with the king when he was young. Alliwhose flowing locks of wavy hair were all Dor could recall from a youth spent chasing her up those very hillswould tell her children that their father was much faster at running and kinder at heart than Nim, the king.

Dor’s people believed that the phenomenon of night and day could be explained by a relentless battle between the sun and moon gods.

The thought never occurred to her, for even a fleeting moment, that she could have married Nim. His bountiful wealth and imperious lifestyle amounted to nothing in her eyes. For she knew, in her heart, even Dor could not find a way to measure the love that existed between them. Now, like sand trickling through an hourglass, everything that gave Dor any joy had begun to disappear. Soon, he would be left with nothing.

The bells of death rang in the form of a feeble-looking couple with spots all over their faces, knocking on their door. Alli and Dor were too moved by the couple’s plight, and overcome by their own loneliness, not to let them in. In a few days’ time, however, Alli would catch the fiercest of fevers. Helpless to find a doctor this far away from civilisation, Dor was left with no option but to hold her as she passed away in his arms.

This was something he could not do. Leaving her alone in her final moments, he fled as fast as his legs could carry him to the village. His intention? Climb the tower so he could plead with the gods to let his wife live longer. He had never known a life without her by his side till this moment, and had no desire to find out what it was like now.

Up he leapt, scaling the tower as fast as he could. Recovering from their astonishment, guards and villagers followed closely on his heels. It was then that the entire tower collapsed, causing everyone to plummet to their death. Only the portion Dor was holding onto remained intact.

He awoke in a dark cave. Every tear that streaked his cheeks and fell to the ground was collecting into a puddle of iridescent blue. It is here that he once again encounters, in flesh this time, the same mysterious bearded old man who had haunted him in childhood nightmares.

The man comes from the future, a place where humanity has become consumed with carrying on his fascination with time. What Dor had laid the blueprints for in his lifetime, had now grown to be the cause of endless grief to generations succeeding him. As penance, he would be confined to this cave until Heaven met Earth.

A passage from the song, ‘In My Darkest Hour’ by Megadeth. To think that this entire verse would have been meaningless, had it not been for Dor.

There Dor lay, crying until he had reached the point of acceptance. He spent the rest of his days drawing symbols to represent his life’s happiest moments on the wall. The author has a way of slipping the most profound of thoughts into a sentence that one could blink and miss.

One such instance occurs with his remark that when man has lost all hope, he does the one thing he knows best: remind himself of his life’s story. It truly is such an innate human tendency, when one is in the throes of desperation, to think back to brighter days. We may not realise it, but the hope of living to feel such moments once more keeps us soldiering on when everything is crumbling around us.

Years turned to decades, centuries to millennia. The pool around him kept growing wider and deeper, but not with his own tears. It was made from the sobs of those in the world below him, as they longed for more time. A daughter with her ailing mother. A farmer grappling with a late harvest. A student swarmed by assignments. In his ears, there was an unending buzz from their collective prayers, but he was powerless to help them.

In this cave, there was a lone stalactite and a stalagmite, both directly above each other. They inched fractionally close to each other as time elapsed. And now, in our time, had come within a razor’s edge of one another. It was then that the old man reappeared, to tell Dor that his penance had now been completed.

All that remained was the completion of a task that would fulfil the purpose of his exile for six thousand years. He was to find two people, one who wanted too much time, and one too little, and tell them of all he had learned. When Dor inquires how two people could make any difference, the old man meets his gaze and says to Father Time, “You were one person. And you changed the world.”

A depiction of Father Time. When Dor arrives on Earth, he comes to life as one such statue in Spain that is being beaten with a bat.

Throughout Dor’s story in this novel, we are constantly diverted by scenes from the lives of Sarah Lemon and Victor Delamonte. Two strangers who would go a lifetime without their paths ever crossing each other, completely unaware that the Universe had their fates intertwined.

Sarah, a teenager on the verge of taking her own life, was convinced against all odds that she had nothing and no one to live for. Victor had once found himself in a situation much like Sarah’s during his own youthonly to forego the trivialities of developing an attachment to things. Now, standing proudly amidst an empire of his own creation, there was but one thing he simply could not let go of—his life. 

A ripe eighty six years old, he had outlasted many others in staving off Mother Nature’s embrace. Far from satisfied by this, it was immortality he sought, even as every cell in his body longed for rest. Sarah, on the other hand, had barely set out on the story of her own life, but was determined to write the epilogue already.

And so it was the day that Victor’s body was being shifted to a cryonics facility for preservation till the world found a cure for his tumourwhile Sarah left her mother’s car running in the basement as she braced for death by asphyxiationthat Dor would bring them together.

A point worthy of noting in this story is, what follows is not a journey into the past to erase their wrongdoings. That is a privilege none of us will ever have. Instead, they are offered a glimpse of how their actions affected their future, as opposed to how they thought it would turn out.

At the end of this book, one walks away with some valuable lessons. Firstly, we learn that nothing in life ever goes completely according to plan. One might think they have found every plausible loophole, and yet the unthinkable might happen. There is wisdom to be found in letting go of the outcome.

Secondly, it is absolutely untrue that we have gone through our entire lives without touching even a single soul who would miss us after we depart. Our mind may try convincing us otherwise, focusing, like the scheming demon it can oftentimes be, on all the instances of unrequited love. There are people capable of looking deeper into us and finding our redeeming qualities.

No matter how grotesque you might find yourself on the outside, there is someone in your life whom you barely even notice, who sees you as the beautiful person you are inside and out. This could be the parents who seldom ever cross your thoughts, even though your very face is but a reflection of theirs. Or the elderly man across the street who never shows it, but whose heart is warmed everyday by your friendly smile and polite inquiry about their wellbeing.

Though this book does not come with a remedy for those who wish to live in the past once more, it teaches us never to lose faith in the future. Nostalgia has a way of making even bitter memories taste sweeter. However, one must not lose sight of all the struggles endured that brought them to the present moment. The future holds no guarantees, but if you could make it this far, this book is a reminder that there could be something worth fighting through the present.