The Mumbai Police Gymkhana, a rectangular ground a sixer away from the city’s Wankhede stadium, hosts corporate and local-level cricket tournaments on its lush carpet, many of them under lights. On such evenings, dozens of passers-by on the adjoining Marine Drive promenade, mostly men, linger to watch the proceedings attentively, some even cheering. Why would they, allegedly stressed Mumbaikars, spare precious minutes, sometimes hours of their weekdays, watching nameless cricketers from anonymous teams? No, without getting on to that ‘national passion’ and ‘national religion’ trip, let’s blame it on our national pre-occupation - ‘timepass’.
Referring to the act of killing time not necessarily in a productive way, the term is not surprisingly traced to urban India of the ’90s (the more polished Victorian word being ‘pastime’, holding a slightly different meaning, originating from the French ‘passe-temps’). Journalistic records show its emergence from the Hindi-speaking regions around 1990, but it was looming large throughout Upamanyu Chatterjee’s 1988 book English August, which tellingly captured a generation of bourgeois Indians being most productive in an unproductive manner. Cut to today, and ‘timepass’ has become nothing less than mainstream, most of its usage is occurring with regards to films, relationships.. and cricket.
And what better an example than the Indian Premier League (IPL) to elaborate the flourish of timepass in contemporary India? Having arrange-married two of the largest timepasses, cricket and Bollywood, this mother of all tournaments (or shall we call it an ‘industry’? economy?) is in its fifth year. And no matter how much its critics argue or purists rant, it continues to force itself into the stream of public consciousness - primetime news, front pages and unrelated conversations - for two whole months.
The middle-class desi, after all, if we liken him to Upamanyu’s hero Agastya, has developed a huge appetite for timepass thanks to the pop culture he’s bred on. Not only can he stand a three-hour-long Salman Khan film without a logical script, he relishes it enough to make it the record grosser. This undying dedication toward killing time also fuels the television industry to launch negative-IQ-level daily soaps week after week. (Not during the IPL weeks though). Even the Indian Cricket League (ICL), the current tournament’s poorer cousin with less than half its star value was latched on to by our Agastyas, if you recall the sights of replete stadiums then. Compared to all the above, the IPL is one delicious stuffed piece of timepass topped with a masala cheese garnish for our famished Indian.
Thus, the eight weeks or so of Twenty20 cricket are marked by committed dinner-time viewing of the match-of-the-day. Never mind the composition of the team or the significance of the match... in fact never even mind what team it is, the cricket channel must be switched on to aid digestion (and kill conversation). At other times of the day, loud analyses (starring Atul Wassan and Ajay Jadeja, who get the spotlight only once a year) must be followed, new product campaigns withstood and a host of merchandise lapped up. We must also bear the hawkers outside the IPL circus, many of them are doing ghastly things such as making Navjot Sidhu talk and Harsha Bhogle dance. Our dinner timepass buys many their dinner.
It is also a term many in their early 20s use with a wink to describe their relationship status to a close friend. They are a large target audience of TimepassFest who don’t find oddity (if at all they spot it) in the suddenly-fit-as-a-fiddle-Zaheer Khan, playing for Bangalore one season, Mumbai the next and Bangalore later; or Dravid and Ganguly ill-fittingly representing Rajasthan and Pune; or in the West Indies team losing a test at home while their star batsmen Gayle, Pollard and Bravo have a lusty fling here. Nothing really matters as long as they get 160-plus runs for dinner. Timepass - 1, team loyalty - o.
Hopefully, we are evolving to something called ‘too much’ timepass, and as evident from TV viewership ratings this year (lowest in history), many have felt the need to two-time their primary timepass. While film makers (*cough, Sajid Khan, if we can call him that) try to cash in that little window of national attention deficit, the IPL itself rises to the occasion by creating a fresh, sleazy, cash-ridden controversy. This is a structured feature of its business model and usually has viewers tuning in again for the off-field six, lies and videotape. In the end, as Shastri would say, N Srinivasan is the real winner.
Is there hope of this mindless masturbation leading us to a process of self-discovery, like it did for Agastya? Will the IPL hawkers strike gold or will a non-IPL window be created in the cricket calendar? Or wait, will a controversy create a new format altogether? Only time pass will tell.