Let Us Sleep

– Ayatree Saha

“तू मुझे मार डाल… लेकिन मैं नहीं उठूंगी। ख़ुदा के लिए मेरे हाल पर रहम कर।”

“उठ मेरी जान, ज़िद न कर। गुज़ारा कैसे चलेगा।”

गुज़ारा जाये जहन्नम में। मैं भूकी मर जाऊंगी। ख़ुदा के लिए मुझे तंग न कर। मुझे नींद आ रही है।”…

“देख मैं हाथ जोड़ती हूँ… मैं कितने दिनों से जाग रही हूँ… रहम कर… ख़ुदा के लिए मुझ पर रहम कर।” (Manto)

The cry of the woman was loud and stern. She begged, she demanded sleep. She was a woman whose labor constituted an important aspect of the economy. She was a woman who was sleep deprived. She was a woman who wanted to respond to her bodily needs, rather than earn to survive another day. She was a woman who lived in a room with a bright light that blind-sighted men. She lay on a floor mat with a dupatta-covered face, unaffected by her starving body. The labor that she had to put through acknowledged neither time nor space. She had marked a space of her own enclosed in darkness, only to be lit by a bulb powered like a hundred candles.1

Poetry, play, art and many other forms of literature have depicted sleep in myriad ways, with multiple interpretation, as necessary, associating sleep with darkness and even death. Medical and scientific studies have explored the process of sleep extensively, so much so that now there are sleep clinics and health associations dealing exclusively with the domain of sleep. However, this does not reduce it to a mere biological phenomenon; the very occurrence and reproduction of sleep, the multiple ways of enactment, and thereby the effects also make sleep what Vilhelm Aubert and Harrison White proclaim as “social event” (Aubert & White, 1959, p. 46).

Saadat Hasan Manto in his short story “सौ  कैंडल पॉवर का बल्ब”, narrates an event of a February evening when things went haywire during an encounter with a stranger. The story revolves around a prostitute, the pimp and the customer. The prostitute incessantly demands to sleep but is denied by the dalaal (pimp) as her labor is the mode of survival. The story evades clarity — the characters have no names, the ending leaves questions unanswered, and the beginning doesn’t give any hints at the unexpected turn in the story. The story ponders over fragmented pieces and ruins that speak of bloodshed. The colour red present throughout the story, whether it is being washed off or worn, hinted at the aftermath that would continue haunting.2 The woman upon continuously begging for sleep, finally gets to sleep, with the dealer dead beside her and a brick covered in blood. It speaks volumes of the labor of women, in this case a prostitute, as well as the kind of inequality and exploitation that prevails. She is the person who meets the needs of survival by selling her labor, which, however, is controlled by the man. Despite that, it is the woman who is sleep deprived and the man continues to have the luxury of sleep. This is true in the context of working class women, who might work as an equal in factories (for instance) to their male counterpart, but the inequality is visible within the domestic space, where not just the emotional labor but every other household chore becomes her duty and responsibility, and the men continue to sleep in front of television (based on Franca Rame’s play “Waking Up”).3 Franca Rame, an Italian playwright and theatre actor, in her monologue from the performance “Waking Up”, portrays the frustration towards her husband, who continues to sleep, without bothering about cleaning, cooking, washing clothes or even talking to her (Fo & Rame). The laughter-inducing performance brings to light the inequality of labor that constitutes the patriarchal structure. 

Both these events are from the previous century, but continue to make statements that are relevant today. With conversation around sleep gradually gaining prominence within the popular and digital culture, the importance of time comes to play. The quotidian of every individual is different, which allows construing different forms of the mundane. The banality of sleep that is embodied and is intrinsic to our everyday lives has been portrayed beautifully in the Bengali film Asha Jaoar Majhe (Labor of Love), directed by Aditya Vikram Sengupta. The film includes no dialogues but rather reflects on the mundane that we all experience, by lingering on details that we more than often miss. The movie depicts a day of two factory workers (husband and wife here), throughout their day, the woman in her day shift job and the man during the night shift. Their daily chores are similar to any Bengali household. Their sleep is scheduled by the industrial time and job that demands the characters to shape their lives accordingly. Our lives have intertwined with this industrial time, often making the physiological time obsolete. When we sleep is no more determined by sunrises and sunsets, but rather the late-capitalist enterprise that has moulded time. 

Scientifically, sleep has moved from being considered a dormant act when little happens to something that is an active process (Sloan & Shapiro, 1997, p. 7). Sleep deprivation has become one of the foremost areas of research, especially in a society driven by a 24/7 demand for labor in this late-capitalist enterprise (Crary, 2013). Sleep does not evade governance nor does it escape negotiations on part of practising sleep. Sleep can be a privilege for some, in who sleeps when and how. But sleep also allows subverting the expectation of constant labor and productivity, rationality and activity. The expectation of women to sleep less and work more in a patriarchal household, requires the need to bring attention to sleeping as an act of resistance. However, it still would entail only a minuscule fraction being able to do this. Sleep has not only been capitalized now, as seen through the entire market that has come about, intending to regulate and govern sleep, but it has also provided the package of “efficient sleeping”. This is where individual and collective negotiations allow liminal spaces of resistance in the intersubjective world. 

1This is based on the story “Sau candle power ka bulb” by Saadat Hasan Manto. The particular scene has also been portrayed in the Movie “Manto”, directed by Nandita Das. The scene remains as powerful in its screen interpretation, depicting the prostitute in dire need of sleep and the pimp demanding her to wake up and meet the client.  

2Here, the friend of the client, who witnessed the scene of death and blood, was literally haunted in his dreams.

3In ‘Waking Up’, Rame mocks how men tend to get rid of their responsibilities and rather burden women with more work, which isn’t even considered work as all of this continues to be unpaid labor. As Marxist feminists argue, the economy would fall if women started demanding for the unpaid labor that is constituted as part of their “duty” and “responsibility”.


Aubert, V., & White, H. (1959). Sleep: A Sociological Interpretation. I. Acta Sociologica, 4(2), 46-54.

Crary, J. (2013). 24/7 Late Capitalism and the ends of sleep. London and New York: Verso.

Fo, D., & Rame, F. (n.d.). Waking Up. 62-63. Retrieved from http://www.michelledanner.com

Manto, S. H. (n.d.). Sau Candle Power ka Bulb. Rekhta. Retrieved from https://www.rekhta.org/stories/sau-candle-power-ka-bulb-saadat-hasan-manto-stories?lang=hi

Sloan, E., & Shapiro, C. (1997). An Overview of Sleep Physiology and Sleep Disorders. In C. M. Shapiro, & A. M. Smith (Eds.), Forensic Aspects of Sleep (pp. 7-28). John Wiley & Sons.

Ayatree is from Durgapur, West Bengal. She prefers calm and quiet, but indulges occasional noise from people around. She is a sociology major and research scholar with interest in gender, body and everyday life. Currently, she is working on sociality of sleep at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Kolkata. You can find her on Instagram.

The essay was published in our April 2021 Issue. Read the full issue here.

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