Prime Edition

Sumana Roy
Free Verse

Are you bored? The rewarding experiences of utter boredom

ave you ever used "are you bored?" as a conversation starter with interesting consequences? The irony in my question is deliberate, if only to show how we often posit the two categories as opposites — that is "boring"; this is "interesting" and so on. When did boredom become such a bad thing? Growing up in pre-Internet and satellite television India, I do not remember my working parents worrying about their children getting bored. It was a given, a necessary part of childhood, like taking a fall is to riding a cycle.

Two things that happened recently made me worry for those who worry about the boredom that children should be protected from. The first was the advent of summer on my Facebook News Feed and the consequent posts about summer camps that my friends were planning for their children. Not being a mother and therefore only used to old world mothering techniques that my mother had employed, I wondered why children were no longer just allowed to be. The second was the arrival of a book in the post — Shakti Chattopadhyay's Mishti Kawtha, Bishtitey Noy ("Sweet words, not in the rain" would be a rough translation).

The collection of rhymes, written nearly thirty years ago, is dedicated to Titi and Tatar. It immediately reminded me of one of my mother's many fond names for my brother and me. The provincial Bengal town we grew up in was similar to the world of Titi and Tatar, the sister and brother in Shakti Chattopadhyay's poems. Why did these poems remind me of boredom then?

One of the primary reasons was how the definition of a child's boredom in the post-electronic age had changed. Chattopadhyay, in these rhymes, is speaking back to older Bangla child rhymes where things happen, or to be more specific, "interesting" things happen — action, so to speak, so that someone is falling or flying, drinking a mythic animal's blood or eating a human, things not really "ordinary". In Sukumar Ray's Abol Tabol too, for instance, the child's world is surreal, an investment in the fantastic. In Shakti Chattopadhyay's poems, nothing "remarkable" happens, only the "ordinary" is documented, and in the process, it turns into something else, a thing of wonder. Titi and Tatar's world is the childhood most of us have had, where imagination had its place of course, but one where childhood, in spite of it being an amorphous zone with its streaks of as-many-childhoods-as-there-are-children individualist ethic, was a collective that made belonging possible.

Ordinariness, that of course in scare quotes now, was valued because it was the only thing available in socialist India. It wasn’t, however, listed in the stock exchange of parenting techniques and so its value did not rise and fall in bullish and bearish times.

rdinariness, that of course in scare quotes now, was valued because it was the only thing available in socialist India. It wasn't, however, listed in the stock exchange of parenting techniques and so its value did not rise and fall in bullish and bearish times. No one has therefore noticed its disappearance, not even those who built their adult lives around it. (I see it returning some day, covered in wrapping paper, like the food and flowers of our childhood are now returned to us, as exotic retail, a bit like home cooked food transformed into the genre of home delivery cuisine. I find that Bengalis have an all weather name for the "ordinary": they call it "nostalgia". But that is another story.)

Titi and Tatar have their cousins in literature and films about Bengal — Apu in Bibhutibhusan's Pather Panchali (that most Bengali children read as excerpts in Aam Aatir Bhepu, that title holding in itself the extraordinariness of the ordinary, the mango seed turned into something like a conch shell), Pikoo in Satyajit Ray's eponymous short film, and Sandeep in Amit Chaudhuri's first novel, A Strange and Sublime Address. There are many others, but I name only these four for a particular reason: Bibhutibhushan, Chattopadhyay, Ray and Chaudhuri let the children discover firsthand what adulthood would later label "ordinary".

Sandeep, the young boy on a holiday in his maternal uncle's house in Calcutta, sees houses enveloped in smoke and mist and a minor epiphany follows: "House after house stood like a little island surrounded by smoke. This is what it must be like, Sandeep thought, to live inside a crater, the fumes putting you to sleep, each day the last day before the eruption". The wet footprints left by the maid on the floor become as laden with possibility as the first footprints Robinson Crusoe saw on the island.

The utilitarian, which was to transform into the "extracurricular" on an adult's curriculum vitae, had no place in this world. Pikoo paints the flowers from his garden not because he could use a drawing certificate later but because his mother, while trying to get him out of the way, inadvertently pushes him to find his relationship with the "real". "How do I draw white flowers on a white sheet of paper?" he asks his mother from the garden. And then finds a way: "By drawing the margins of the flower in black?" Titi and Tatar's multiplication tables are not about numbers but go something like this: Titi ones are Titi, Titi twos are You, and so on. Sandeep, who cannot read Bangla, sees the letters of the Bangla alphabet as characters — "baw" is "a fat man standing straight with his belly sticking out", for instance. This, then, is the remarkable ordinary that is not part of the harvest of summer camps and coaching clinics. Not without reason does Chaudhuri call "17 Vivekananda Road", an ordinary address without bureaucratic landmarks, "a strange and sublime address".

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