Longing for Leisure

Who knew play required so much work?

Longing for Leisure

I’ve been fascinated by British novels and plays set in the prewar era, not least because the wealthy characters in these works of fiction — whether serious or comic — have what seem like endless stretches of free time at their disposal.

If you throw a stone at any Jane Austen novel, you’ll likely hit a character taking a rejuvenating walk, playing the piano, going to a ball, or whiling away the hours in some other pleasant manner. Oscar Wilde sums it up best, of course. In The Importance of Being Earnest, the imposing Lady Bracknell asks Jack Worthing, who wants to marry her daughter, if he smokes, and he says that he does. To this, she responds, “I am glad to hear it. A man should always have an occupation of some kind. There are far too many idle men in London as it is.”

Of course, the envy-inducing, easygoing lifestyle of the rich surely didn’t trickle down to the masses. Only the independently wealthy must’ve been able to engage in brilliant conversations with friends on lazy afternoons, while the less privileged have always had to worry about the nuisance of making ends meet. (For proof, look no further than “Downton Abbey.”)

When I think of my own middle-class Indian family, I can’t find evidence of anyone indulging in leisure. It’s true that some of the household work was done by domestic workers because of India’s wealth inequality, but my guess is women worked as hard as men. They spent much of their time raising children, cooking, and doing household tasks. I know this because I stayed home for several months after my son was born, and it was definitely not a time of leisure for me. In fact, the day I went back to work after dropping him off at daycare was as relaxing as a trip to the spa.

On my mother’s side of the family, in addition to doing household chores and raising children, women have held jobs for three generations. At a time when most women weren’t employed in India (or in much of the world), my great-grandmother established a girls’ school in Ajmer, Rajasthan, which later became a college that exists to this day. And my grandmother helped establish two Montessori schools in Kolkata and one school in Jaipur.

I’ve been working since my early 20s. My fantasy of being able to indulge in the state I coveted so deeply — leisure — was dashed early and often. When I was a child, my father told me his deepest wish for me was that I’d become financially independent. Moving to the U.S., where hard work is worshiped — and where one of the richest people in the world brags about sleeping under his desk so he can get more work done — has made my fantasy seem all the more misplaced. Not only was I born in the wrong wealth bracket, I was born in the wrong century.

However, now that I’m an empty-nester, which I wrote about in my first column, I have time at last — significant stretches of it. But this free time doesn’t feel like what I’d anticipated so fervently. While one dictionary definition of leisure happens to be “time free from work or duties,” that feels inadequate. “Leisure” conjures something much more special for me: time spent nourishing the soul in some way, much like those characters in Victorian novels taking long walks while deep in conversation.

I have more free time now than I’ve ever had before as an adult, but does it count as leisure? I’ve done some self-examination to figure out what, exactly, would constitute this nuanced state of being for me. The answer? Spending time with friends, having meaningful talks, doing yoga, sketching or painting, reading, going for walks, pursuing a hobby, playing a game or sport, or listening to music. All of these represent leisure, yet none of them — with the exception of listening to music — is truly passive. Each requires some amount of effort or organization.

In other words, to make my newfound free time count as leisure, I’ll have to put in some work.

Ananya Bhattacharyya is a Washington-based editor and writer. Her work has been published in the New York Times, Guardian, Lit Hub, Baltimore Sun, Al Jazeera America, Reuters, Vice, Washingtonian, and other publications.

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