A Nation of Insomniacs

Have you ever considered how we, as a nation, make a virtue out of insomnia, regarding it as a gift bestowed by the gods on the truly worthy? Ask me, I have been particularly afflicted most of my life by the ‘Sleep and Be Damned Syndrome’, which I am convinced is peculiar to the Indian subcontinent.

Don’t believe me? Just look around you. People vie with each other in recounting tales of how early they get up each morning. There are those who actually get up in the middle of the night, as early as 3.30 am, just to be out on a morning walk before the rest. Get up one day at 4.30 am and check the roads – you’ll find office rush-hour a walkover in comparison. I have a colleague who boasts she gets up at 3 am to polish her fridge door!

All my life, I have been admonished by grandparents, parents and aunts, even stray women who wandered in to pick some kari-patta from our garden, on how ‘good’ girls – those who grow up into model wives and then model mothers, I assumed at that impressionable age – get up early, don’t sleep in the afternoon and don’t yawn before 11 pm, or till the last person in the house is snoring, whichever is later!

As a result, till I actually met my husband, I never once entertained the thought of marriage as playing a role in my life. I seemed so patently unsuited to it. If ‘normal’ people needed six hours of sleep and people who worked hard, eight, I never felt rested till I’d got my full ten hours.

In hostel, the nuns hit upon a novel way of making sure I got up when they wanted me to. Playing upon my abnormal sense of responsibility (even this post is a manifestation of decades of guilt, I confess), they entrusted me with the task of getting up first and waking up everyone else. I’d totter out of bed (at 5 am in summer, 6 am in winter), walk all the way to our common study to grab the bell and sleep-walk up and down the corridor, clanging it for all I was worth. It is sure proof of my stupor that till today, I don’t remember what that bell sounded like.

Needless to say, like poles don’t always repel, and I got married to the one man in the world who could sleep more than me. When the son got to school-going age, we cast our eyes around and chose a school that started class at a sensible time, in our opinion. 10.30 am for Junior School – what more could a parent want?

A whole lot more, we realized two years later, when a host of busybody parents – the kind that you see jogging on the roads at 4.30 am – decided that the kids were coming back home too late. How on earth do you define ‘too late’, I wondered. Have you ever heard a wife complain the husband was ‘too late’ when he walked in from work at 7 pm? Do you think the corporate he worked for would listen to her and let him off at 5 pm instead? Unfortunately, corporates are corporates, and schools are not. This school obligingly held a referendum. Our emphatic ‘No’ did not even register in the clamour of the Early Risers. An hour was knocked off our night’s sleep in the next session.

Worse was to follow. A change at the top in school came about last year, and the new principal belonged to the same school (of thought) as my parents, aunts and grandparents. One of the first things she did was start school at 7.30 am. Which meant that though we live a hop, skip and jump away from school, the latest I dare wake the son up is 6.30 am. We wander around bleary-eyed, he getting ready and I getting his lunch ready. After he leaves, I settle down to a day of feeling guilty, trying to remember what exactly I put into his lunch-box and wondering whether he would survive it.

These days, I have a mission in life: eliciting opinion on why schools – and people in general – propagate so earnestly this equation of ‘early’ = ‘successful’. After all, no corporate house expects work to start before 9 am. And that is where, I presume, most of our bright young sparks are headed. On the other hand, the only people who get up for 7.30 shifts are assembly line workers and domestic labour. Not exactly your conventional definition of ‘successful in life’.

Meanwhile, I look upon it as my life’s work to convince my mother that two extra hours of sleep are not evidence of debauchery. Just once, I want her to look kindly at me when I stumble down the stairs at 10 am and say, ‘Poor dear, shall I get you some coffee?’

When you consider that my mother, if and when she succumbs to an afternoon nap, sleeps with her feet sticking out of the bed so that ‘I won’t sleep more than ten minutes’, you’ll realize that I have my work cut out for me!

First published in The Financial Express in May 2000.

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17 thoughts on “A Nation of Insomniacs

  1. Omigod! I quit working cos I wanted to be able to sleep as long as I wanted to – and it is working so far 🙂 I can still claim that the only way I have seen 4 AM in a city is when I have stayed up all night and, so, I never realized that it could be counted as some time in the morning 🙂 (The caveat comes cos in treks I sleep when the sun sets and, thus, have had my 10 hours by 4 AM 🙂 )

    • Ritu, Suresh, the guilt keeda wins each time, that’s the problem! The son loves his sleep, too. SO the husband and I have often found ourselves waking him up over the phone on an important day, first in Bangalore and then in Washington, DC. Washington was easier because it was at five hours behind us. But now that the son is working in London, I find that many days, I don’t even know when he’s left. Maybe this is pay-back-Mamma-for-all-those-sleepless-nights-I’ve-caused time or maybe I’ve just just died and gone to heaven!

  2. As inventor and great fan of making sandwiches for breakfast and dinner the night before, I completely agree with your sentiments. My sons know not to bring out the witch/bitch within me by waking me up – unless there is a life n death situation. 😀
    This post is something I can so empathize with. I am so glad the boys are out of school now!

  3. I’m from the other end of the spectrum. All my clocks are 15 minutes ahead, I make my son ready for play-school (yes, play school) a half-hour before he leaves, I reach railway platforms an hour in advance of the train departures and as for flights, I am ready to spend the night before the take-off in the lounge, just to be on the safer side. Yes, I am mad. Blame it on my parents! 😀
    Having said that – loved your post!

  4. Nice one! I can so relate to it. Only difference being that I married a man who is an early riser too… sigh! On the positive side, he’d better take care of all the morning chores.

    Every person is different and so are his / her sleep needs. Hate it when people start generalizing.

  5. You have no idea how blessed you are. It’s a curse to be wide-eyed and bushy tailed at 6 AM on a Sunday morning. Imagine spending the next two hours for everyone to wake up!

  6. A high five for that post as I have spent a lifetime trying to catch up with the first fowl or a twitter of bird in the morning irrespective of the month! No regrets this far as I do not usually share this secret as not many are willing listners:)

  7. Ha ha, Mimmy, it’s so funny that you don’t remember what the bell you rang sounded like. The bell was ringing in your ear and you still managed to semi-sleep walk. Oh well, every minute of extra sleep counts!

  8. What a lovely post…because it is so empathetic! 😀
    Is it at all hard to understand why the most unpleasant memories of school and college that I have are the ones that involve rising earlier than the birds? Thank goodness for adulthood, I say!

  9. I only woke up that early if I had to study for exams. But these days, I have no choice but to wake up by 6 am to send the kids off to school. So yes, it can hardly be about choice always :).

  10. Brilliant Post.. Even I grew up in a house ruled by the early risers, Especially when my life revolved around sitcoms at night, there was no way I could get back before 8.30 am. Thanks to friends, i started keeping resolutions to go for morning walks early morning, which never happened, thanks to my love for the snooze button. The guilt made me eat more in the sorrows of then missed resolutions. I have finally mastered the art of getting ready for work in half an hour ..:)

    • I can get ready in ten minutes flat, Sheetal. My family are always surprised at how quickly I can be out of the door (especially if the destination is a movie hall!)

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