Twenty-three-year-old Aditya Raj is back to his childhood days. He sleeps while listening to the stories from Panchatantra these days. Only that the impromptu 'once upon a time' stories by his grandmother have been replaced by a podcast and earphones that play these tales of morality and valour any time he is ready to call it a day.
The data engineer from Dumka, Jharkhand, started this bedtime ritual soon after the pandemic hit. "Podcasts took my mind off the upsetting news floating on social media. They helped me relax so much that I would go to bed with Episode 1 but wake up on Episode 10 (sic)," chuckles Raj, who tunes in to comedian Zakir Khan's self-help podcast Ummeed just as frequently.
Raj is among the growing number of adults who are putting their screens away at night and sleeping to audio stories instead. Take the case of Suganthan Asokan from Chennai. The 27-year-old marketing professional puts on funny podcasts like Hoezay's Kaanmasti and those related to football and business to “go to bed with a positive mind”.
Seetu Tewari too tunes in to the kahaanis by Prem Chand and Sarat Chandra to tune out the “trauma” she witnesses as a reporter during the day. "In these stories, I meet characters who I would have met in real life had the pandemic not cooped us in. It's reassuring to sleep knowing that I am still connected to the outside world," says the 30-year-old from Patna.
People are indeed struggling to sleep since the outbreak of coronavirus. Dr N Ramakrishnan, Senior Consultant in Sleep Medicine, and Director of Nithra Institute of Sleep Sciences in Chennai, calls it the lockdown sleep syndrome.
"Besides the general anxiety about health and jobs, many are suffering from 'bed anxiety', stressing about things like 'will I get sleep?' or 'when will I get sleep?' These stories probably help take their mind off," he says.
Creators are making use of soothing voice-overs, vivid descriptions, meditative tunes, ASMR sounds (like whispering and tapping), white noises and long silences. These stories are mostly adapted and in English, and the originals are often written with no beginning, middle or end.
Or, as Surbhi Jain from Bengaluru tells us over a laugh, "The beauty of sleep stories is that they begin interestingly but turn slow and boring, causing the listener to doze off."
She puts up original bedtime stories on her YouTube channel Neend, in Hindi, once in three days, of 15-25 minutes each. They are set in India, sometimes in the Himalayas, sometimes in a village fair, because Jain believes Indians can relate to these better than "the lavender gardens of the US".
Launched at the peak of the second wave in April, her channel has logged an average listenership of 1.5 lakh since.
Likewise, the Indian arm of audiobook giant Audible has seen a massive surge in the listenership of their sleep and meditation content in the past one month, says Country Head Shailesh Sawlani. Their 'Audible Sleep Collection' that dropped in April 2020 includes 15 bedtime stories and soundscapes as well as short pieces on sleep dynamics.
Many have been crafted by wellness experts such as Sara Auster and Gabby Bernstein, and voiced by international celebs like actor Tony Shahloub, celebrity chef Curtis Stone and singer Nick Jonas.
Even Mindhouse, a mental wellness app, roped in Indian actors Rahul Bose, Konkona Sen Sharma and Amol Parashar to lend their crisp voice to A Night in the Forest, A Swiss Mountain Adventure and The Ice Crest Beach respectively. "The average download of the app increased threefold when we launched these sleep stories in November 2020," co-founder Pooja Khanna shares.
In terms of the genre, fitness app Ultrahuman has seen more traffic for romance, travel and ASMR stories. The team says they have more bedtime stories for adults than children and their listenership peaks at around 10:45 pm.
On the other hand, Storytel has been curating audiobooks on the themes of happiness, meditation and overcoming grief. "Adults end up listening to children stories too, such as Hiss, Don’t Bite," says Yogesh Dashrath, Country Manager, Storytel India. Since these stories run for over 10 hours at times, the apps let you set a timer, post which the book will switch off.
In that sense, tech consultant Sowmya Raghavan has found a balance. "I listen to audiobooks from 9.30 pm, hit the pause button at 10.30 pm, and sleep off in the next 15 minutes. This is yoga nidra for me, also a throwback to my childhood," signs off Raghavan, who’s heard a dozen bed-time stories in Tamil and English, including Enid Blyton stories, since the pandemic.
Topping the charts
Classics like The Eyes Have It, and The Leopard and I (Ruskin Bond), and Heidi (Johanna Spyri), on Ultrahuman
Bedtime Stories for Adults (short stories by Pauline Mason) and The Power of Your Subconscious Mind (Dr Joseph Murphy and Mitch Horowitz), on Storytel
Bedtime Stories for Cynics (Nick Offerman) and Sleep 101 (original), on Audible
A Swiss Mountain Adventure, and A Night in the Forest (originals), on Mindhouse
Chandni Raat Aur Samudra (original), on Neend