The Lost Art of Doing Nothing or the Pursuit of Wasting Time


                                                                                                                        By Anwesha Paul

The very act of writing is a “doing”, and hence, paradoxical to the theme of this particular discourse. Nevertheless, I shall make an attempt to give form to the formless, and resolve the anomalies contained therein.

The other day I was in the act of doing something completely silly. I was walking around the house barefoot, reveling in the smoothness of the marble floor beneath my soles. It had been a while that I indulged in such sensuous wanderings and the gnome in my mind kept interjecting — “Shouldn’t you spend your time in creative pursuits?” or, “Why don’t you make the most of your four-day holiday?” It went on to further castigate me, “You have already spent two of the four days in bed listening to lectures and hardly coming up with anything worthwhile.” Oh, well … the softness of marble… so delectable… I am one with this moment and its contentment. Ah…the senses take over and the mind formulates luxuriant phrases. I wonder if my attention to its properties awakens something within the stone itself? Almost as if in response to my thought it glows translucent in the sliver of sunlight, the green veins almost holographic, twinkling ever so slightly, stretching across the wide expanse of warm white, like the star clusters of Ursa Major, the snapshot of the universe etched in its most humble creation, the basest of life, a stone.

Turning my gaze upwards and outwards I perceive the street beyond my window. The hubbub of life, unnoticed in the routine of more important things, washes up on the shores of my consciousness. The raucous calls of the vendors belong to a forgotten era. The fragrance from the florists’ stalls wafts to my nostrils. Beguiling, bewitching memories take over the mind.

In a different age, seemingly eons apart, I used to notice my grandmother observe the busy street outside. Oh! What a forgotten activity is world-watching! I would often join my grandmother as she would lean against the railing, her hands crossed over it, extending outside, just observing. But was she just an observer? Or was she an active participant in Dionysian delusions? If not actually, in her mind, she surely participated in the scenes that unfolded outside? But, then again, does the world exist separately outside our mind?

 I remember pastry sellers with their delicious wares in boxes atop their heads, and other hawkers doing the rounds of the streets. These astute purveyors knew women were potential buyers, and if they came within their range of awareness, surely, they could make a sale or two. I remember the tableaux taken out on India’s Republic Day and Independence Day every year and how these shows went by the street in an awesome procession, and we would be privy to a glorious carnival, a free ringside view, at that.

This habit of world watching had another aspect to it. It was both an idle pastime and an active pursuit. As one lolled languorously against the wrought iron balconies, one inadvertently registered bits of information about neighbours as well as strangers. Though the verandahs have shrunk or disappeared altogether, and women actively make up the world now — having long given up their role as bystanders to throng the centre-stage of the theatre, there is this new platform, a kind of liminal extension which affords one a glimpse into the lives of others. It’s no longer a local thing like the flavour of aloo paranthas escaping from your lunchbox at school recess but a richer repast of global fare conveying people’s lives from across the world in the geography agnostic space of social media.

If we slowed down a little, perhaps we could once again discover the joys of being bystanders and absorbing the minute, ordinary, interesting details of life, which blossom into something extraordinary under the telescope of idle scrutiny.

In the early days of the lockdown and pandemic people were busy producing content. Everyone was dancing, singing, writing, painting, or engaging in some activity that was considered “fruitfully spent”. There was almost this urgency which required one to keep doing, and doing more, because somewhere, perhaps this thought lurked that if we did not “do” something we would cease to exist. Thus seen, “doing” comes across as a survival technique, an imperative which keeps one going. The thought occurs to me that “doing nothing” is not necessarily a counterpart, but a complement to the active life. Perhaps, one is meant to hibernate, and go within at times, in the alternating winters of the soul so that when the time comes, one can emerge out of her halcyon hollows, energized by ennui.

As the winter months draw closer and the nights become longer, the slight nip in the air feels delightfully welcome. Leaving the dream realm and the cozy warmth of the blanket becomes perhaps, the hardest achievement to pull off, no matter how brisk the mornings may be. The soft bed clothes and the duvet become my tribal totems, claiming me as their own and clinging on with the tenacity of limpet linen which seek to enclose me in their sybaritic shell. With a herculean effort I have to fight off the smothering love of the blankets to embrace the cheery day.

A warm bath and a brisk walk scented by the fragrance of the seasonal flowers is all it takes to get out of my morning tryst with torpor. In the sub-tropical climate, the winter months are short and longed for, and consequently savoured. I try and eke out the days of pleasant weather. Delhi winters are, of course, something I would really want to revisit. I remember it was zero degree the first winter I spent in Delhi. Fresh from the experience of a freezing Himalayan solstice in Kathmandu, I was sure Delhi would be a cakewalk. Was I wrong! Delhi surprised me with a zero that year. However, it did not repeat its feat in the following four winters that I spent there.

Winter is a paradox — it is bright and brumal; brisk and lazy. It is lethargy wrapped in mental discipline. It is agility layered in lassitude, only to be coaxed out with great effort. It is de jure dormancy. Now, if you cancel a plan stating, “It’s too cold and I cannot get out of my blanket,” you will probably be dropped from several social invitation lists in the near future. Conversely, you may be excused by the similarly lazily inclined who would probably have preferred to loll around in their sun-kissed balconies but, nevertheless, went wherever they had to.

The fear of missing out on things is a real ailment. I don’t know if a word for this condition exists in the English dictionary. The acronym FOMO (‘fear of missing out’) was added to the Oxford Dictionary in 2013 giving this pronounced social anxiety a lexical legitimacy. If I were to coin a word that describes this fear it may be something like “missophobia.” Well, I agree my inventive faculties are not that great, but they are, kind of instigated during this spell of doing nothing. Even as I pen this rambling enquiry into the lost art of doing nothing, I remember lying around on a camp cot on the terrace of a winter afternoon, consuming a whole lot of chocolates and oranges while listening to Simon and Garfunkel on loop, just indulging in daydreams.

The delectable indolence, the frenzy of life, the charmed memories waxing and waning like the moon, wakefulness followed by sleep, and birth by death, all turn in an endless, inevitable and anticipated cycle. Returning to the paradoxical nature of “doing nothing,” I’m tempted to agree with Tom Stoppard who famously declared, tongue firmly in cheek, “It takes character to withstand the rigours of indolence.”

Anwesha Paul is a UX designer and graphic artist from Kolkata, India who is also into writing, having published several pieces in various print and online publications. Anwesha is an animation filmmaker whose short films have been screened and awarded in various international film festivals.



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