ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

Otium and Nostalgia: A Conceptual History of Feeling Time in South Asia


Noor Farha - University of Heidelberg, Modern South Asian Languages and Literatures, Heidelberg, Germany


24 – Timely Histories: A Social History of Time in South Asia


 This paper proposes to explore the concept of otium – an experiential or felt aspect of leisurely time (time free of obligation) – in the South Asian context by focusing on the intersection of history of emotions and literary history. Although otium is perceived as a temporal concept rooted in western antiquity, the paper argues that it constitutes a universal experience of leisurely time notwithstanding semantic, cultural, and emotional variations. In the context of South Asia’s colonial encounter with Britain, the combination of orientalist prejudices and colonial capitalism produced a sense of ‘taboo’ on otium concepts and practices owing to the ‘myth of the lazy native’ (S. H. Alatas, 1977). Such stereotypes can be seen as internalised by groups of ‘Indians’, especially after the failure of the 1857 Rebellion. The loss of political and cultural pride of the Urdu-speaking intelligentsia in the late 19th century created a conflicted understanding of time – as both ‘wasted’, as well as ‘lost’. This conflict is expressed by Urdu writers of the time through arguably divergent expressions of Islamic reformation and British efficiency on the one hand, and of nostalgia for a lost time and way of life (zamāna, waqt) and a loss of status/auqāt on the other hand. The paper focuses on these entangled emotional and temporal conflicts of Urdu writers while it goes on to argue for an understanding of literature as a vehicle and a reflection of conceptual and social change in South Asia.