In praise of idleness

Posted: March 7, 2012 in Delhi life, ivory tower musings
Tags: , , ,

What on earth does the doctoral student do with her long sunkissed exotic days? As this weary old meme-chart (and the meta-fact of the creation of this weary old meme-chart, and the meta-meta-fact of the writing of this entry on this weary old meme-chart, etc) suggests, less than she probably should. Much of the time fieldwork life seems to involve waiting, watching people, buying hard-to-find books, musing on stuff. It’s the intellectual equivalent of having a really good scratch of your onion bhajis.

In fact, there’s a great tradition of not doing a whole lot in India, especially for educated unemployed youths. There’s even an expressive Indian-English phrase for it: ‘doing timepass‘.

In clumps through the city, young men (and occasional women) kill time. I watch them sidelong, they stare at me. Rich kids like the spoilt brats in the awesomely titled Pakistani film Slackistan go to malls, have endless torrid affairs, go clubbing, sip macchiatos (I am extrapolating wildly from the trailer). Those a few rungs down the social ladder smoke bidis, ‘hang out’, drink tea, drink booze, dominate public space, wander around, play mobile phone tunes in parks, mutter to each other and leer and catcall at passers-by; these sleazy and occasionally aggressive young men are flippantly termed ‘roadside Romeos’, and their harassment of women ‘Eve-teasing’. If the cult-classic novel I’m reading—English, August (1988), purely because it’s by a bloke called Upamanyu Chatterjee—is at all accurate, marijuana and masturbation also play a central role.

Watching the day go by in Purana Qila

Many of these young people have little option but life in limbo, watching indefinite tracts of time flutter by. Waiting forlornly for a middle-class job to open up in a phenomenally competitive labour market, they collect endless degrees from fourth-rate colleges—the sort of places notorious for scandals like the entrepreneurial registrar who subcontracted postgraduate examination marking to schoolchildren, and student campaigns for the right to cheat in examinations because cheating is so widespread. The result, as in so many other countries, is a dangerously large and disaffected group who are really, really bored with the status quo.

One particularly idle afternoon of my own, paroxysms of guilt threatened to spoil my coconut-water. A new friend soothed me with an essay by Bertrand Russell, the title of which I’ve cheerfully nicked here.* With his caustic class analysis, slightly mad economics, and call for a healthy maximum dose of four hours of work a day, Russell is a primly reassuring voice in defence of laziness:

I want to say, in all seriousness, that a great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by belief in the virtuousness of WORK, and that the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organised diminution of work… The morality of work is the morality of slaves.

Idleness and leisure are essential for civilisation, and are one of the ends of life: surely a heartening message for the world’s millions of jobless educated youngsters. I almost feel inspired to start an NGO to spread the word. Right after I finish this onion bhaji.

—–

* I tip my hat, in the oddly C19th blogospherical phrase, to Puja for this. In case you’re really procrastinating, the full text has been inexplicably provided by the Massachusetts Green Party here, and you can also hear it read aloud by a smug American or a more lovable world-weary robot.

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Comments
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