Lee Atherton



Can waiting generate new possibilities for action and experience?

Cover Interview of

In a nutshell

My book, Timepass, examines the lives of middle class young men in India who have spent long periods in education but cannot find secure salaried work.

Joblessness growth is a major problem in India. Despite the rapid growth of the IT industry, there are very few secure jobs for young people in the country, especially in the poorer northern parts of India. At the same time, demographic growth and the rise of education have swelled the ranks of educated hopefuls. It is now common for several thousand people to apply for a single middle-ranking government job in the Indian State of Uttar Pradesh.

Aggravating this problem still further is the fact that the vast majority of higher educational institutions in north India offer a very poor standard of education. There were just five computers for 16,000 students in one of the colleges in which I worked in 2005, and educational corruption was rife.

My book provides an in-depth picture of how young men deal with a lack of employment opportunities. A particularly interesting dimension of the social lives of these unemployed young men was the extent to which they have become concerned about boredom. Many have become especially preoccupied with how to kill time, and they discuss themselves as people just doing “timepass” (passing the time). They stand around on street corners, play cards, watch television, gossip, and get into fights. Many of these men depended on their parents to remain idle, and this creates inter-generational tensions.

Timepass has become an identity for these men. On street corners and tea shops they often forge friendships across caste and class lines based on the idea of being men “hanging out.”

Young men also work together across caste and religious lines to develop collective youth protests. Unemployed young men are sometimes a force for good: they have the time, energy and skills required to protest against injustice. They are building links between poor people and the state.

“Waiting has always been crucial to human activity and is also a distinctive feature of modernity. But what of “chronic waiting”? What of situations in which people wait for years, generations, or whole lifetimes?”

The wide angle

The book considers issues of class, politics and waiting through reference to a lower middle class of Jats in Meerut district, Uttar Pradesh, especially students from this caste studying in Meerut City.

The book follows a central story. A prosperous, socially confident and politically influential set of rich Jat farmers emerged in North-Western Uttar Pradesh in the first four decades after Indian Independence, partly as a result of improvements in agricultural production. During the 1990s they faced new threats to their power associated with the rise of lower castes. They addressed these threats by trying to influence the operations of local government and by investing in their children’s education—strategies which farmers imagined as forms of “waiting.”

Yet only a few of the sons of these rich farmers were able to obtain the salaried jobs that they had been led to expect and many had come to imagine themselves as people who had no option but to “wait.”

I examine cultures of limbo among educated unemployed young men. Unemployed young men were advertising their aimlessness through a self-conscious strategy of hanging out or “doing timepass” (passing time)—a masculine youth culture that challenged the dominant temporal logics of their parents and the state.

Cultures of masculine waiting were precipitating collective youth protest in Meerut, especially around issues of corruption, students’ progression through academic institutions, educational mismanagement, and government officials’ harassment of students. In Meerut young men from a wide variety of social backgrounds sometimes came together to orchestrate agitations against the state and university.

But class and caste inequalities fractured collective protest around unemployment and corruption. In particular, among unemployed students a set of Jat “leaders”, who also called themselves “fixers” (kãm karãnewale), used their social contacts to monopolize local networks of “corruption”—practices that undermined young people’s collective action.

In setting out this central story the book contributes to literatures on the rise of middle classes in India and youth in south Asia—and to inter-disciplinary reflection on “waiting” as a context and basis for politics.

March 23, 2011

A close-up

We all wait. Waiting has always been crucial to human activity and is also a distinctive feature of modernity. But what of “chronic waiting”? What of situations in which people wait for years, generations, or whole lifetimes?

Several scholars have argued that such “chronic waiting” is on the rise around the world. Witness the rising prison population, the emergence of large detention centers on the edge of industrial states, and the huge swathes of the world’s population who believe in a vision of “development” but feel that they are waiting for their social and economic dreams to be realized.

My book deals with one such “waiting population,” educated unemployed young men. In telling their story, I’m interested in trying to think about waiting not as a passive activity but as something creative and fertile, something that opens up possibilities even as it creates frustration.

For example, among many unemployed young men in north India a type of loosening of social relationships takes place. Men start to feel a sense of solidarity across lines of caste and religious difference. They start to develop new genres of humor. They begin to spend a great deal of time with another on the street. Social relations begin to change—albeit often only temporarily.

I would like readers of the book to reflect on what other contexts are there in which people wait. Can waiting generate new possibilities for action and experience?

“I examine what young men are thinking, how they are spending their time, and what they do, when they find that their first choice of work is impossible to obtain.”


The book’s significance is threefold.

First, it points to the rise and resilience of a middle class in India—not the upper middle class that we read about in the media, but the “real middle class” of people in provincial India who are not poor but who are also excluded from many of the benefits of metropolitan modernity. That is, people with motorcycles but not cars, people who have a certain amount of education but not prestigious qualifications, people who are muddling through but lack secure, lucrative work. These are the people we encounter when we visit India—small hotel owners, taxi drivers, shopkeepers—but they are very rarely the subject of books.

Second the book is a sustained enquiry into young people’s ambitions and actions in modern India. I examine what young men, especially, are thinking, how they are spending their time, and what they do when they find that their first choice of work is impossible to obtain. I try to bring out the humor of these young men: joking, horseplay and banter is a major theme of the book. But I also point to their civility, and the conservative nature of many of their goals: like young men in many other parts of the world, they want to be good citizens and respectable members of local society.

Third, the book is about waiting. I want to suggest that when people are compelled to wait for long periods of time, they inevitably become frustrated. Boredom and aimlessness become central concerns. But also something else starts to happen. People begin to plot new courses of action. In certain circumstances, these waiting populations begin to assemble and collaborate across historical social divides. Far from being a passive activity, waiting can be a seed-bed for new cultural and political projects.

© 2011 Craig Jeffrey
Craig Jeffrey Timepass: Youth, Class, and the Politics of Waiting in India Stanford University Press 232 pages ISBN 978 0804770736 ISBN 978 0804770743
Lee Atherton

Craig Jeffrey is a University Lecturer at the School of Geography and the Environment in Oxford and Tutorial Fellow at St. John’s College. He was formerly an Associate Professor in International Studies and Geography at the University of Washington. He has conducted academic research on youth, politics, education, and development in north India for the past sixteen years, regularly publishing in journals such as Development and Change, World Development, and Comparative Studies in Society and History. Besides Timepass, featured in his Rorotoko interview, his books include Degrees Without Freedom: Education, Masculinities and Unemployment in North India (Stanford 2008, with Patricia Jeffery and Roger Jeffery), and Telling Young Lives: Portraits of Global Youth (Temple 2008, with Jane Dyson).

Cover Interview of
March 23, 2011