Opinion | Why sleeping well remains a distant dream
Doctors and sleep scientists attribute the national sleep shortage and individual sleep disorders to predictable things such as the seductive blue light of our phones
Sarah Aijaz, a writer from Bengaluru, once listed the 21 kinds of people you find on the Indian internet. Somewhere in her taxonomy was the Wake Up Guy, whose comments exhorted “Wake up India!" Once Aijaz said it, it became impossible to not see it everywhere—online and offline. If you look at it a certain way, Rabindranath Tagore was the original Wake Up Guy, hoping that his country would awake into the heaven of freedom.
Were the Wake Up Guys wasting their time all along? In 2019, fitness tracking company Fitbit announced that India was the second most sleepless (and least active) among 18 countries, including the US, UK and Australia, Chile, Singapore and Peru. Only Japan sleeps less than we do. I am not sure we needed that report though. As a nation, we have great contempt for sleep. “Sleeping or what?" is a favourite desi insult. Poor old Kumbakaran is a full-fledged asura reviled for his harmless habit of long hours of sleep.
As we go into exam season, it is not just the children who stay up late or wake up early who are held up as paragons, it is also their mothers, standing by with the proverbial glass of milk. Never mind that teenagers need more sleep. Never mind that teenagers need more sleep than 10-year-olds—at least nine hours of sleep. Never mind that teenagers’ inbuilt sleep cycles make it hard for them to wake up early. Never mind all that because we believe that not sleeping is enterprise, not sleeping is love, not sleeping is virtue.
Unfortunately, the thing about sleep is that you can’t work hard at it. According to a recent study from Rush University, US, using sleep-tracking apps could give you insomnia where you had none by making you unnecessarily obsessed with perfect sleep. They call this deliciously ironic condition orthosomnia. Parents who undertake that tortuous process called sleep training are essentially taking away every aid—rocking, walking, singing, bottles, breasts, your dancing the dance of the seven veils at 3.30am or other activities infants can pretend they need desperately. Kumbakaran should be the reigning saint of the sleepless and of the new parent, since he has the signs that sleep scientists are looking for—he falls asleep easily and wakes up refreshed and ready to roll.
When a Bengaluru mattress company advertised in December that it wanted interns who demonstrate an ability to sleep 9 hours a day, we were agog. But that they were doing a bit of stuntcasting and were willing to pay ₹1 lakh a month, holy Morpheus, Batman! In January, Wakefit announced that it had received 165,000 applications from over 250 cities. The company has shared the most charming of the video applications, including a sterling candidate singing a parody of Main Hoon Na and the dude who said, dus baje ke baad meri aatma bhi bed se baahar aa nahin sakti (After 10pm, even my soul can’t get out of bed). While these were great, what I would pay to watch are the videos of young people telling their parents that they were applying for this internship.
I keep saying sleep scientists, and in case some of you are raising your eyebrows, I want to assure you that it’s a thing (and in Gurugram there are people who will train your baby to sleep but that’s another story). Across the country, a handful of labs are dedicated to the study of sleep and sleep disorders—several of them are affiliated to the Indian Society for Sleep Research (ISSR).
Doctors and sleep scientists attribute the national sleep shortage and individual sleep disorders to predictable things such as the seductive blue light of our phones. But phones are aids to wakefulness for adults like bottles are aids to sleep for babies. Why are we awake? Even without phones, we are obsessed with not sleeping, so phones are just an excuse.
In The Third Reich Of Dreams, journalist Charlotte Beradt recorded the dreams of her fellow Germans living in the Nazi era. This fascinating collection includes chapters in which Jews saw themselves hanging out with Hitler, women dreamt of freedom and everyone had endless nightmares about the terror of bureaucracy. What would such a fantastical and ambitious undertaking among Indians tell us about ourselves?
I like to think that it is not accidental that the ISSR journal is called Sleep And Vigilance. What are Indians keeping vigil for? Are we afraid to sleep? Or are we afraid to dream?
Cheap Thrills is a fortnightly column about millennials, obsessions and secrets. Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger.
FIRST PUBLISHED07.02.2020 | 01:36 PM IST