The setting is an ancient but popular mattress shop in Old Delhi. A tall, stout man who seemed to have taken over his ancestors’ customised mattress making business, stood behind the counter, in the antique looking shop that smelt of bales of raw cotton and fritters being fried in the stall outside.
His freckled face went well with the red polka dotted shirt he was wearing, he cajoled my friend, Garima and me, with his ware, “Madam, our ancestors have sold mattresses even to the Mughals, since the times of emperor Jehangir. These mattresses will give you same ‘feel’ as Aladdin’s carpet!”
How so, I wondered.
He persisted, “Dreams ma’am, dreams. You will have ‘fairy-tale’ dreams. Good sleep means good immunity also, no ma’am? Covid time …”
What a salesman! I observe that he just used the buzzword- ‘immunity’, the word that everybody wants to lap up, to save oneself from the virus! I was impressed. He was selling the most precious commodity of our times-SLEEP! Garima and I order the mattresses.
Would we too fly away to magic lands afar, as we lay down, like the princesses and empresses did? Were they insomniacs too, with all the political intrigues wafting around them?
Acquaintance with sleeplessness
Garima suffers from insomnia, hence as gifts for her birthday she’s been buying things that would lull her into deep and sweet slumber. Her intimate acquaintance with sleeplessness is harrowing. She solves Wordle, Quordle and the likes during the witching hours.
Watches a movie or web series on one of the OTT platforms and tries not to look at the clock, ticking away … anxious that the darkness shall soon merge into daytime — chaos giving way to another zombie-like day of work, chores and exhaustion!
Her condition and that of many others, remind me of William Shakespeare’s writings about sleep, especially the hopeless lament from Henry IV, “O sleep! O gentle sleep! Nature’s soft nurse, how have I frightened you, that you no more will weigh my eyelids down and steep my senses in forgetfulness?”
Garima is a part of a Whatsapp group called the “Insomniacs’ Hub”. Bizarre sleep-inducing devices have found their way here. Many brands of gadgets and sleep solution, wellness centres are marketing sleep to health-conscious consumers.
My friend has invested in a metronome device that features a light system that trains you in slow breathing exercises and prepares the body for sleep. Well, it’s ironic how e-devices have led most of us to this stage of sleeplessness and now we go back to another set of devices to heal us from the agony of ghost-walking through the day.
My son thinks that sleeping is a waste of time. Every second is used up to study, read non-fiction or scouring the stock market. When asked to rest, the cheeky retort is always Benjamin Franklin’s, “There will be plenty of time to sleep once you are dead.”
I quip back, “But without sleep your brain will die out like an uncharged battery.”
Dragana Rogulja, associate professor of neurobiology at Harvard Medical School, with her team found that when animals and insects are sleep deprived for many days, they just collapse and soon die. Human beings too could face a similar repercussion.
Many literary insomniacs like Wordsworth, Emily Bronte, Robert Frost and Vladimir Nobokov, Marcel Proust, cultivated habits of nocturnal writing and perceived their wakefulness as a gift.
As for me, my phone reminds me that it’s time to sleep at 9pm daily and automatically goes into the airplane mode for 8 hours. Nothing is more soporific than a warm shower and a book, as I doze off while reading Proust, on most nights, with my glasses on.
I do say a little prayer of gratefulness, addressing Somnus, Hypnos and all the lords of sleep across cultures, for a night of restful sleep — “the death of each day’s life”, “balm of hurt minds”, “sore labour’s bath”, “chief nourisher in life’s feast”, so accurately described by William Shakespeare.
Navanita Varadpande is a writer based in Gurgaon, India. Twitter: @VpNavanita