On our short afternoon walk in the park, we sometimes see a white-brown mongrel athwart the peripheral pathway; it lies curled up in tight sleep at the same spot, a live comma punctuating the prosaic world beyond its ken. It is the proverbial “sleep of the just” that gives people endurance to bear the “slings and arrows of outrageous Fortune”.
Mutely we skirt past the animal. Its floppy ears will jerk alert at a stroller’s whisper or a scurry of squirrels racing up a tree or a strutting dove or a child’s wafted balloon. Any encroachment of its dormant domain can rouse it to dart at our legs. Sanskrit has a word for such deep and dreamless sleep: “sushupti”; (worth a search in the Internet). Elsewhere a mother walks by, with an infant cradled in the crook of her left arm. Minutes later, the baby is bent over her left shoulder, like the pleats of her sari’s pallu, still in the bliss of sleep.
At night I court sleep, rambling over the day’s images, my lost booklore and folklore, sensory delights, hurts given and taken, regrets and anxieties, even the multiplication tables I learnt like a mantra. I envy the slumbering dog and baby; their sushupti is beyond my reach. Shakespeare said it: “Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleeve of care”; but not for Macbeth, who has “murdered sleep” because of the “vaulting ambition” to be king that he and his Lady were lured into by the three witches.
Medical advisers say we need eight hours of sleep a day, tantamount to a third of our lifetime. For most people, this is impossible. We have to get by with a siesta here, a catnap there, unless denied by pressure from bosses and household duties that brook no delay.
As a boy, I was fascinated by Sleeping Beauty (later adapted as a lovely ballet by Tchaikovsky) and Rip van Winkle, Washington Irving’s short story of a Dutch farmer immigrant who slept through the whole American war for independence. Ramayana tells of Kumbhakarna, the massive, gluttonous rakshasa. His elder brother, Ravana, had to wake him up with elephants trampling over the torpid body, to battle against Rama and the monkey brigade. Our Bhagavatam has the story of King Muchukunda, a virtuous ancestor of Rama, who had fallen asleep for years. I loved Alice in Wonderland, that Slumberland of droll characters, the White Knight, the Walrus and the Carpenter and the Mad Hatter, who lived in their own reality from a fictional girl’s dream.
Poets have written of sleep and death as twins, echoing the Greek myth of thanatos and hypnos. Sleep is home to dreams and fantasies.
Many people become insomniacs. The antonym, “somniac”, may not be lexical, but somnolence is; we all know it prevails in offices, assemblies and audiences. An elder of mine became an invalid by losing sleep. He blamed the cuckoo clock in the hall which chirruped 12 times at midnight and popped out to greet the small hours too. He disabled the trusted cuckoo, but almost wrecked his marriage, because that Swiss clock was a wedding gift his wife’s uncle had brought from Germany.
I am lucky if I wake. I am lucky when real bird calls coincide with daybreak where I live.