Playing with Boredom
Far below me, the audience watched with bated breath. Will she fall? Will she fall? My foot almost slid down the calf, but I caught myself just in time, knowing well that there was no net below to protect me.
As a little girl, I was sometimes enlisted by my father to walk on his legs when they ached. My father was not one to make too many demands, so it did not ever strike me to refuse. He would lie down on the bed or the floor on his tummy, and I would walk ankles to knees to ankles, back and forth. It was a dangerous mission that required utter concentration from me, a newly minted trapeze artist. Head held high, I zeroed in on my task, sensing only the two slender tightropes below me, oblivious to the spellbound audience below. Up and down, turning at the ankles with ever so much grace. One of the tightropes moved just a bit, swaying in the wind as it were, and I teetered a little. The crowds gasped as they sensed the obvious danger to my life, and then let out a sigh of relief in unison as I swiftly regained my balance, and head held high, continued my steady path on. Back and forth, light as a wisp. Finally, when my father signaled that it was enough, I jumped down with a slight bow, finally acknowledging the now wildly cheering crowds.
Sundays, and everyone in our building knew where to find my father: under his car. It was a high maintenance vehicle, that required his tender loving care, so that it could start on Monday morning, and with some luck, keep running all through the week, ferrying him and some of his colleagues to work and back. Several of our cousins tried to convince him that he should just sell this vehicle and buy a new car, but my father would have none of that. All the groceries and other errands that my mother needed done, had to be performed on Saturday while my sister and I were at school, because come Sunday morning, my father would disappear under his car, returning only in the afternoon, making a brief appearance in between for lunch. Occasionally my sister or I would get called to rush him some tool that he had forgotten to take with him. During this time, my sister got very proficient with her knowledge and usage of tools, as she would wait and watch him fix the car. Sometimes it would have been the wrong tool, and then it would be my turn to bring down the right one. Running three flights of stairs down and back up, this ferrying of tools could get bothersome for a little kid. But not when you were a detective.
My father would sometimes leave grease filled finger prints around the house, which my mother would patiently go around cleaning. One fresh fingerprint was all that a good detective needed. Using the spanner as my magnifying glass, I walked down the stairs, examining the steps for other signs of the crime scene. Everything was suspect, including the pigeon who was looking down from the concrete screen by the landings. It could be a homing pigeon waiting to take a message to the master criminal. I stared back at it, when from the corner of my eye I spotted something. A piece of paper with some undecipherable writing, apparently written under duress. Had the pigeon brought this? No, the ink still smelled fresh. Maybe the pigeon was waiting to take this note back. Aha, an ink blot there…..so the boy must have got into a scuffle right while he was writing the note. The ink blot looked new; he couldn’t have gone far. And what was this? Another finger print! The search was getting more exciting by the minute. I understand now why my sister would have been the preferred courier, given the length of time it must have taken for me to traverse down the stairs and back.
I also hesitate to think what our neighbors must have thought about this strange behavior.
All that playing around didn’t just help make tasks more pleasant; it had other uses too. Academic terms were marked by two unit tests and then a final examination. Our exams required learning several facts by rote. Evenings and nights were spent memorizing, making examination season a time that was dreaded by all. Yet, while everyone else was studying, I was a television announcer, reading out aloud the happenings of history long gone, as though they were current events. Sometimes it just so happened that the most gripping news of the day was a listing of crops grown in India, including which state grew which one, and what kind of soil and water needs they each had. Imagination can bring the driest subject to life. It can make you laugh, forget the mundane, or even terrify you as anyone who has suffered the after-effects of a horror movie can testify. Some nights, we would have short power cuts, and the kids would gather in the dark stairwells. The darkness demanded a horror story and one of the older kids usually rose to the occasion, with effects that lasted well into the night even after the electric supply had resumed, with every shadow, every flicker of light, every sudden movement assuming inordinate significance: something that still prevents me from watching or reading anything remotely scary.
When imagination can’t be bound, is there even any time for boredom? My mother recalls that I was always bored at the cinema, which must have been unfortunate for my parents, for whom a movie was a special and rare treat. I would sit with my back to the screen, and announce to the people sitting behind us, “I’m bored.” I get it now: it must have been so much more boring to watch the imaginations of others, when I could have my own to play with.
To me, imagination is a sign of an agile and active mind, while I associate the feeling of boredom with how my body feels when subjected to excessive heat and humidity; that same sensation of lethargy, a slowing down of all bodily functions, just transferred from the physical body to the mind. Bored to death, bored to tears, bored stiff: all expressions that convey that sense of sluggishness, of oppressive stillness. A mind imprisoned by a wearisome task, drooping, unable, perhaps unwilling, to roam free. What would that trapeze artist, that detective think of me, if I told her that I was bored? I think she would have simply blamed it on my lazy adult mind that refuses to take that leap of imagination.