Robert Dessaix, an award winning Australian novelist, essayist and journalist, was in Kolkata for Apeejay Kolkata Literary Fest 2018. He was part of a panel discussion on 12 January, regarding his book The Pleasures of Leisure, which is partly based in Darjeeling and has references to Hinduism and Khajuraho.

The other speakers were novelists Chandrahas Choudhury and Prajwal Parajuly, writer Sandip Roy. A former Russian scholar and presenter of a national book programme, Books and Writing, on ABC radio, Robert’s repertoire includes What Days Are For, As I Was Saying, On Humbug, Arabesques: A Tale of Double Lives, And So Forth, Corfu, Night Letters, the autobiographical A Mother’s Disgrace where he traces his French roots and Twilight of Love: Travels with Turgenev, a crossover of a personal travelogue with a biography of Ivan Turgenev.

When asked about the idea behind writing the book, he says, “The idea behind it is the panic I sense in western countries and large cities all over the world, about what to do with free time. Technology is supposed to solve this problem, but it doesn’t. What does it mean to spend free time well? Nobody knows. One can only spend free time well if one has an inner life. Thinking, introspection and discovering things by oneself lead to it.”

In today’s fast paced and competitive world, most people are submitting to becoming slaves and partaking in the rat race. “If you do not have an inner life, you will become a slave to work. Being a slave does not mean living a bad life. It means not having freedom. Freedom requires an internal sophistication which makes you understand what you actually want, which makes you happy, and not what will make you rich,” he says, “Does buying an extra TV or a bigger car really make one happy?”

In the book, he writes about how leisure comes in three forms, which can be learnt from observing pack animals, like the dog. “After you have hunted and eaten, you do nothing. It is restorative and wonderful, and you should not feel guilty about it. An activity that allows this is smoking, but unfortunately, it kills you. The second type is nesting, which can only be done with your domestic partner,” he says, “The third type is what I like to call play. This includes activities we like doing, like hobbies. Some of the greatest inventions and innovations have come from play, and not work.”

He encourages people to pursue things and activities that are more fecund. “If a person likes collecting refrigerator magnets, I have no problem with that. But what if he collects Japanese pots? Then he would learn more about Japan and its culture, art, heritage and religion, besides the art of pottery itself,” he says, “Pursuing such things is enriching and hence brings more joy.”

Travelling is another dominant aspect of his life. “The word transport has two meanings — physical and psychological. To me, travelling relates to the latter: being transported to another place or carried by joy. For instance, if I come to Kolkata and attend a one day conference at a hotel and leave the next day, I am not transported here.

The same thing can take place anywhere in the world,” he says, “But if I take a walk along Chowringhee, then I am transported to another place altogether. This is because the phenomena happening in Chowringhee does not exist in my world. The sounds, colours, conversations and faces are so very different than what I am used to.”

Among other things, the panel discussion touched on the subject of various adversities that technology has on one’s life.

The constant overload of information does not allow breathing space. He himself is not part of Facebook, Twitter or other similar social media platforms, which is rather peaceful for him.

Also, the exchange of communication between people via social media tools, such as email, does not allow the full freedom of expression. His thoughts are that one can only be naked on a piece of paper.

The Pleasures of Leisure provides an engaging insight into how humans can reclaim the pleasures of relaxation, leisure and enjoying life in spite of having long working works and a hectic lifestyle.
“The point about leisure is that you do it for your own sake.”