Useless characters

Feb 09, 2014, 06:30 IST | Paromita Vohra

Last week, three boys from Patna set off on an ill-planned expedition to catch Dawood Ibrahim.

Paromita VohraLast week, three boys from Patna set off on an ill-planned expedition to catch Dawood Ibrahim. Why did they do this? Not out of patriotism, nor revenge, nor a need to prove their nobility or manhood. They wanted only the cash reward that would rid them of the drudgery of studies and the life-long servitude to duty that studies are training for. They were found and brought home from Delhi, I imagine, sheepish but cheerful.

Illustration/Amit Bandre

The news report quoted one teacher saying, “Those three boys were least bothered about their studies” as if it were a sign of utter moral degradation and innate venality, the mark of a potential Mogambo, who will do bad things and then be khush also. I could just hear her say, “Hmff, useless characters!”

What is a useless character? One who does not give due importance to things like coming first in class, marrying the right type at the right time, not being up-to-date with politics perhaps. If you happen to enjoy other people’s cooking and are always free to accompany friends on timepass expeditions, for your good offices you are secretly scorned as a useless character.

Once uselessness had its place in our culture. RK Narayan’s characters, like Swami spent serious energy in escaping domestic authorities. Shah Rukh Khan is best loved for playing a useless fellow in Kabhi Haan Kabhi Na, where he gets neither pass marks nor the girl; in Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, he joyfully upheld the family tradition of failing. It’s not that uselessness was glorified — just that it was acknowledged that there are different ways of being good and that which is not quantifiable, is still worthwhile.

Now, it has become a matter of morality to be useful through visible evidence. Now, as Nietzche has said, “More and more, work enlists all good conscience on its side; the desire for joy … is beginning to be ashamed of itself. One owes it to one’s health — is what people say when they are caught on an excursion into the country.”

Even our consumption of unnecessary objects has been made into a duty. We must shop in order to serve the economy and buy the right car and fridge to show we are not useless. We must do well so we can become cogs in the wheel. This Puritanism of purpose has take over every action and thought turning us into relentlessly productive capitalist subjects.

It is not my aim to shame the usefully engaged or mock hard work (being a hardworking type myself). It’s just that we are surrounded today by a pressure to prove our usefulness — and hence our worth — at every anxious moment and those not in that race, become suspect. So now everyone is putting on the uniform cloak of usefulness and turning fun into work.

Our every thought must become a glistening haiku, a clever quip or sententious mystery which is tweetable, will enlighten others and multiply our followers. Our reading, our boredom, our flirtations, our disappointments — all must be converted into some consolidated product which will teach us a lesson and basically make all your mazaa kirkira.

Like writing? Useless — unless it is a book. Like making films? Useless unless they smash box-office, win awards, or some big-shot promotes them. Otherwise what purpose are they serving? Can sing? Better become a professional singer otherwise what use is it?

Fun is seen as frittering the time our finite lives hold. But all our busyness will not stave off our mortality. To sometimes be a useless character, is simply to accept and celebrate, our humanity.

Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at

The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.

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