The more we cram things into our day, the less we seem to enjoy life in its infinite variety. I retired two decades ago and settled in Mysore with my wife, a native of this “Malgudi”, now expanding in suburban splendour and squalor. We sometimes feel oppressed by agendas we can’t postpone, like a visit to a dentist or a call to a friend far away or a bill to be paid to avoid penalties. Weekdays and Sundays, workdays and holidays lose their distinctive flavours: one misses the anticipatory élan of a Friday, the justifiable gloom of a Monday morning and the victory of sandwiching “casual leave” on Thursday into a fun weekend. Lost is the prolonged holiday we had expected as compensation for years of hurrying to office, urgent summons of duty and worries about transfer/promotion.
Now we have the time, but rue our past lethargy in failing to enjoy what little freedom we interspersed between our drab routine days. We could have gone on that picnic trip to Ooty or fulfilled that neglected call on a sick relative in Bengaluru.
We crave leisure in youth and pine for it when lapsing into senility. Now, after joining the ranks of Very Senior Persons, I grasp some gifts within reach that I had neglected. One is to read or re-read books for the sheer excitement of lighting upon a passage or picture that makes us wonder about ourselves and the world. Another pleasure is to look at things afresh, with awakening wonder: a dawn kindling the sky, a moonlit night, a shoreline with eroding rocks, even a painting or photo revealing juxtapositions of form and colour I previously missed.
One day I rediscovered a short poem, Leisure, by the Welsh author W H Davies who wrote it a century ago. He asks: “What is this life, if full of care/ We have no time to stand and stare?” With this spur to his senses, he sees “streams full of stars, like skies at night” and many other beauties we pass by inertly. I recalled Keats’ last sonnet, Bright Star, with lines that sprang to mind on a bike ride by a rushing stream: “The moving waters at their priestly task/ Of pure ablution”. Young Keats thinks of his beloved in his steadfast passion, aware he is dying of TB. The pathos of it is touching.
Nehru was so moved by Frost’s Stopping by woods on a snowy evening that he kept the stanza on his table: “I have promises to keep/ And miles to go before I sleep”. The poet’s cart horse seemed to give its harness bells a shake as if to ask why they were stopping in the wood. It was metaphorically apt that Nehru liked to reflect on the wonders of nature, knowing free India still had a long way to go.
But aesthetic hedonism and raptures over rainbows or ragas should not be a snobbish pretence, but an instinctive response to the delights we miss in the daily grind. Frances Cornford neatly satirised a fashionable lady whom she saw from her train window. “O why do you walk through the fields in gloves, Missing so much and so much?” She missed, for instance, the tactile joy of feeling the soft fallen iris petals. Leisure presupposes hard work, often repetitive and tedious. Despite such downsides, we can replenish our zest for life by being sensitive to the joys around us.