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The Asian Age Review

Pleasures of boredom 

One of my favourite social commentators is Santosh Desai. He recently published a wonderful book called Mother Pious Lady. It is a huge collection of essays, each a little fragment which captures the story of everydayness in India. Desai’s book is about daily events. What he chronicles with particular poignancy is the era of the 60s.

He argues that the scarcity of that time was part of middle class grammar. Scarcity was a level above subsistence. But the Indian genius lay in converting scarcity into a surplus around hospitality. Less became more in the hands of that generation.

There is a more tacit argument in his reflections that I want to stretch out. He argues that what tied that generation was a common embeddedness in boredom and the beauty of boredom lay in the fact that it produced so few bores.

Boredom was one surplus all our childhoods had. We had time on our hands. Yet time was never weighed on us. Boredom was the great commons. In its original usage, a commons was a piece of land at the outskirts of the village where the poor would go for pasture, for collecting wood, fodder and medicines. It gave them their resources for survival. The commons today is an intellectual space. One talks of the network as a commons but the idea of boredom as a commons is more fascinating.

We made do with what was available. Our only resources were time, family, food and relatives. Out of them we created the fabric of our lives. We were spectators rather than consumers. A spectator has less money; he watches what he can afford. His choices are limited. Therefore he has to invent his own little makeshift alternatives. The summer of our childhood was replete with nukkad cricket, card games and carom. What they lacked in quality we made up with exuberance, with silly jokes which we repeated with obsessive frenzy. Repetition, recycling, waiting, replay became the protocols of boredom. The window, as Desai notes, was the centre. We spent hours watching each other watching each other.

Boredom had its own punctuation. A lot of it was expectation. One waited for things to happen and occasionally when they did we extracted maximum pleasure and value out of them. It could be a plate of samosas, an uncle’s surprise visit, an old album or a radio programme.

Boredom was never homogeneous. Each man created his own dream time and as a collectivity we created rituals for managing it. Even hanging around was an art form. Each of us had little, but we improvised around it. Games, word play and jokes, all of them needed little in terms of technology, less in terms of investment. Yet boredom never felt empty. The routine, the everyday was always pregnant with possibility. Only we had to be alert obstetricians to obtain it.

Boredom was a greater culture than leisure. Leisure was seen as time away from work. Leisure was calibrated time; it was purposive. It even became instrumental. Boredom was a different continent whose natives invented the repetition of each day.

Boredom was inventive; it sought small variations, the little diversities one could savour. It created the varieties of memory that one treasures. Boredom was the only domain where textuality and orality co-existed. The few resources we had, like the comic book, the cricket ball and our little fund of stories, we shared. Boredom turned the world of subsistence into sustainability. It created the corpus of memories we survive on. Memory grew on the humus of boredom. Today we are grateful for the legacy it provides us. Tell me your moments of boredom and I will tell you how inventive you are. Consumerism and media, with the demands of liberalisation, corroded boredom. There were new excitements one could buy into. Events were boxed and presented in TV. One no longer had to forage for them. We lost the ability to be scavengers in time, one of the great forms of creativity that the India of the 60s provided us.

The demand for speed destroyed boredom. Speed industrialised boredom and canned our expectations. We did not explore the real, taste the bazaars of life wading in dirt and limited resources. Now we took things for granted, especially the phone. The email and PC filled boredom. These huge land-fills of pre-fabricated time could never have understood the haiku-like vanity of the postcard. Four or five lines of intense waiting, read and read as memorials of an everyday event. But waiting and boredom gave memories a certain edge. They let us replay it, savour it and explore it.

Now memory is more ersatz. We now produce remixes of memory which lacks the sense of renewability the original gave. Replaying Mushtaq Ali’s knock or Dhyan Chand’s stroke or a story about Milkha Singh is not the same as watching Tendulkar or Dhoni on TV. The repetition of the first kind was classically different from the second which left little to the imagination.

This is why I want to argue that the right to school and the right to education are not playful enough. One needs a corresponding right to boredom. Maybe the word right is the wrong word. The word right is dutiful. It marches in uniform and outlines an entitlement. Boredom needs availability but without the officialdom of guarantees. It is there. One snatches it, one nurses it. One cannot account for boredom. You cannot scale it up. Both children and adults need boredom like they need the creativity of friendships. I cannot sympathise with the TV and the computer because they cannibalise time. They create information without the husk of true memory. I find children lack boredom today. Their vacations are pre-packaged with things to be done. In the era of boredom it was more a wishlist. Democracy needs that wonderful sense of boredom. Without it, one lacks the rhythms of tolerance, the sense of being that makes life liveable, laughable, memorable and engagingly loving.

Shiv Visvanathan is a social scientist

Shiv Visvanathan

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