“Bedtime Stories” by Aveek Sen.


My mother was, or believed herself to be, an insomniac. Since I came back to live with my parents, my father has always been a solid sleeper, and when I have my sleepless nights it is not because I cannot sleep, but because I do not want to. So, the nature of my mother’s sleeplessness set her apart from the rest of us. Sometimes, I felt, it even gave her a certain sense of distinction. In her eyes, her insomnia had a genealogy—a matriliny—that connected her, through her own mother, to her quietly eccentric aunts, especially the delicately erudite one in Santiniketan, who had kept at bay all the eligible men in her youth, lived with a female companion (a robustly no-nonsense Inspectress of Schools) throughout her middle years, which meant, among other things, sleeping very little and eating even less.

I grew up with stories of how, excepting her early-marrying and more matter-of-fact eldest sister, my mother and her siblings were all chronic insomniacs. They spent all night playing Chinese checkers or calling up the spirits of the dead. My mother was an especially good medium. She told me how she would go to bed and her fingertips would start feeling heavy and numb, and she would find herself reaching for the pencil and paper under her pillow. This became a bit of an addiction, and she started getting a slow fever. My grandmother discovered this after coming upon piles of spirit-scribbled paper stashed away among her children’s study materials and put an end to all this. Even then, the children’s bedroom filled up with a mysterious smokiness one night after they had gone to bed. Each thought that he or she was the only one able to see it, but realised very soon that they could all see this foggy thing that had come in through the window. It went away only after their fervent appeals: “Please go away, please leave us alone, we want to sleep.”

I remember visiting my grandmother’s house in the evenings, well before dinner, and finding them all, my grandparents and my unmarried aunt, lying perfectly still in their respective single beds and rooms with all the lights in the house switched off, and communicating minimally in barely audible, almost telepathic, monosyllables. It was as if they prepared themselves, from sundown, for the long journey of nocturnal sleeplessness by working through and dispensing with, earlier in the evening, the lesser motions of sleep. My sister, cousins and I would giggle about it, calling it the Silence of the Tomb, but we never found it gloomy or forbidding. It filled us with an odd sort of peace, which we cherished in an irreverent way, since we all came from rumbustious paternal homes that seethed all day with the hearty energy of solid sleepers. (I love that moment in Bergman’s Autumn Sonata when the diva-mother comes to visit her tongue-tied daughter and son-in-law, and is well on her way to driving them mad by the end of their first evening together. When the mother goes up to change for dinner, the daughter manages to snatch a moment with her husband and shares with him a sudden insight about her mother, “I’ve often wondered why she suffers from insomnia. I think I know. If she slept normally, her vitality would crush those around her.”)

It was with my maternal grandmother, though, that I first began to plumb the depth of the connection between sleeplessness and the experience of loss (or, as is more often the case, the fear of loss and of the unknown). After my grandfather’s sudden death, I would often sleep over at my grandmother’s, and get sucked into the hallucinogenic power of her grief. All night long she would be racked, intensely and intimately, with what, to the adolescent me, was the terrifying, and often embarrassing, presence of her husband’s absence. He was the unseen addressee toward whom the ravelled sleeve of her sleepless nights would stretch, in which would come undone imagined or remembered conversations, unsent letters written in her head, woven in with shreds of poems and songs by those masters of the natural supernatural, the friend-haunted Tennyson and the death-riddled Tagore. “Come, come, dear girl, let us go begging in the streets,” she would call out, like Lear in the storm, to the young maid trying to get a bit of sleep on the floor by her bed. It was an endless, Acheron-like, yet irresistibly vital, flow of utterance, as much the invention of a language as the blotting out of one, emanating from somewhere between consciousness and its unspeakable obverse. It would mingle, to my relief, with the first stirrings of the crows and pigeons at dawn, above which soared the unearthly polyphony of the muezzins, which I waited for with a yearning more desperate than religious fervour. My grandmother would get out of bed, coolly make her morning toilette, and sit on the veranda by the terrace, across which the sun rose. By the time she finished saying the Gayatri Mantra, and read a sermon from Tagore’s Shantiniketan, she would have composed herself into Whistler’s Mother, wrapped in the grey cashmere of her impeccability. I have been re-reading Patrick White’s late novel, Memoirs of Many in One, in which a daughter tries in vain to un-perturb her unmanageably larger-than-life mother. “I think you’d better go to bed and sleep it off,” the daughter suggests. To which the mother responds with a sort of abstracted condescension: “Oh, but you know I never sleep—or no, you wouldn’t. I only dream.”

With my mother, the Chinese checkers and planchette gave way, in her life after marriage, to lying still and listening to my father’s leonine snoring, to the cats outside making love and war, while the ancient watchman beat his iron rod on the road as he did the rounds on his bicycle. But, my mother claimed, her watchfulness was sharper than the watchman’s. She loved to tell the story of how she once overheard a burglary being conducted with cold-blooded meticulousness on the ground floor of our house. She kept waking my father up throughout the night to give him a precise, running account of the technology of the break-in and removal of spoils. Of course, my father kept asking her to stop imagining things and go back to sleep (or whatever insomniacs go back to when commanded to go back to sleep). The next morning, when all were aghast at the truth of my mother’s imaginings, the only way my father could manage to save his face was by pointing out that the burglars had left behind a freshly sharpened scythe, with which they must have been waiting for the man of the house to come down and abort their operations. So, by not listening to his wife he had saved himself, and his loved ones, from what might have been a gory beheading.

What the comedy of this story brings out, of course, is the not-so-comic conviction, which my mother must also have nurtured within herself, that the insomniac must not sleep so that others may. She stays up for—that is, for the sake of—those she loves and must protect from the perils of the unknown. And, from this conviction is born the ambivalence of being a mother and being mothered—the great ambivalence, or “wakeful anguish”, of love itself. It is an ambivalence that is encapsulated for me in the word, smother. Like those Russian dolls fitting into one another, smother produces from within itself the progressively smaller mother, other and her, and is often associated in our minds and bodies with the accoutrement of sleep, especially with large, soft pillows, which, having learnt from Othello, are not quite free of tragic possibilities.

Thinking about motherhood, and about my mother in particular, inevitably led me to Louise Bourgeois—this time, not so much to her towering bronze spider, which she had called Maman, as her Insomnia Drawings: sketches and scribbles that she made compulsively in manuscript books and on scraps of paper through the night during a certain period of her late years in which she found herself battling insomnia. The image, or idea, that recurs in this body of work, and simultaneously in her more publicly displayed work, is that of the femme-maison—the woman-house, woman turning into house or house turning into woman, a woman taking upon herself, physically and figuratively, a house. This is often linked to the image of a woman as pillar or caryatid, female figures—in Venetian houses and churches, caryatids are often Moorish slaves (Othello again)—holding up, Atlas-like, in a literally architectural sense, the structure of the entire building. These sketches and plans are inseparable from the words that surround them or are scribbled at the back, and the web they all spin together makes me wonder what the difference might be between Bourgeois’ art and my grandmother’s nocturnal grief-work:

  • Key to Insomnia:
  • peace or trust
  • the houses that are separated but
  • both together.
  • night: watch for emerging emotions, hard to spot out, wait and breathe right.
  • I am unable to make you understand what I mean
  • I want
  • I expect
  • I fear
  • I plan
  • I do not want to say
  • I am Coerced into keeping things alive
  • total helplessness.
  • Though I cannot resist taking care of topiary or children or mother
  • The walls are paper thin…
  • lady in waiting
  • nothing else.
  • M is for mother
  • in the water, it is subject
  • to change
  • or even reversal.
  • Risk and fear
  • not Waiting in VAIN, in the rain. PATIENCE & silence.1


Compiled from the translated transcriptions in Louise Bourgeois, The Insomnia Drawings, Volume 2, Daros: Zurich, 2000.

If insomnia is a kind of space or architecture, a house at once interior and actual, then my mother and I fought a tender battle over, and inside, that house in the last ten or so increasingly mortal years of her life, as her sleeplessness came in the way of mine. Staying awake, for me, is about pleasure and not about worry, not about what Bourgeois calls “risk and fear”. That is the time, after everyone has gone to bed, when I savour most my being alone, my hard-bought distance from the companionate world of Lying Together. This is when the familiar, and the familial, suddenly becomes instinct with a secret life, not only through the pleasures of solitude, but also through its exact opposite: the paradoxically collective, and often anonymous, sharing-in-solitude of writing, art, music and every other expression of Eros that the internet, and good headphones, make possible today. Inseparable from the lives of reading, writing, thinking, dreaming and conversation, this is the time when the real houses that we live in begin to blur into the virtuality of another kind of architecture freed from space, into the immaterially material structures of image, music, voice and text, each with its own kind and shapes of meaning.

As my mother’s illness intensified over her last years, her suffering and anxiety, which she bore with impeccable grace, fortitude and humour, and the terrible uncertainty and exhaustion it brought into our lives, became the necessary and difficult counterpoint, or ground bass, to these nocturnes of mine. My senses and other instincts sharpened, so that I began to be able to hear above, say, the sonorous self-pity of the Mahler I would be listening to, the little sounds of my mother trying to go noiselessly to the bathroom with her torch, and I would wait, without interrupting the beating of Mahler’s musical heart, for the sounds of her switching off the light and coming back to bed again. Or else, she would come silently into my study, anguished and guilty, to say that she has been bleeding internally and would need to be hospitalised again, and our lives, and hers, would be eclipsed indefinitely by “risk and fear”.

Sometimes, now, when I sit at my table at night and look over the glow of my laptop towards the open door that I face, into the darkness of the veranda and garden that lies just outside, I can feel two presences that are really one. I call them the Good Mother and the Bad Mother. The Bad Mother embodies a legacy of fear, the compulsive apprehension of distress and of loss. The Good Mother brings with her a kind of hazardous and hazarding fearlessness, which comes with a capacity for pleasure and openness to life, inextricable from an openness to death. Each of these figures, as she appears at my door, is a gift; but the real, and most exacting, gift, I realise as I struggle to write this, is that they never come alone, but are always together.

I keep coming back—thankfully, with a guilt that is diminishing with time—to the fact that I wasn’t there when my mother died. If death is about absenting oneself from life, then life could also sometimes be about absenting oneself from death. And sleep, that little bit of dying we do every day, is the Bridge of Sighs that both joins and separates the House of Life and the House of Death. A son’s great misfortune is that he is not allowed to wear his dead mother’s clothes. It is an inheritance that is denied him by the norm. Yet, what mysterious transgressions do these two mothers, the Good and the Bad, conspire to produce for their son as they let him sleep, wrapped, every night and on idle afternoons, in a coverlet that layers together with needle and thread, as Bourgeois would have enjoyed doing, two worn-out saris purloined from the maternal wardrobe, stitched to a lightness that would never threaten to smother?

Full fathom five

“Slowness,” my friend was typing on Skype from far away, “I have to do an interview on slowness. Any thoughts?” “There’s the Kundera novel,” I wrote back, “And Keats: foster-child of silence and slow time.” Then I began to notice how, in Skype’s messaging window, the handless little yellow pencil—whose job it is to indicate that a response was being typed at the other end—kept making neurotic writing motions and would, from time to time, give a deathly shudder and collapse, to pick itself up again and continue scribbling with the same manic energy. But, for the rest of the day, the phrase, slow time, kept going round and round in my head—like a large bird circling the skies.

What the words brought back was a specific kind of slowness, which we encounter only in music and in cinema. I have come round to believing that there are certain films and pieces of music that are not meant to be watched or listened to while being fully awake all the time. And their soporific quality is deliberately created by their makers; that is how they are supposed to work on us, and into us. For me, this deep, dark, dream-delving slowness goes back to Wagner, although I can imagine that had I been as keen a listener of Hindustani classical music, I could as easily have worked it back to the drawing out of the alaap in the elaboration of a raga.

I remember going for a superlative production of Parsifal many years ago as a student. In Parsifal—Wagner’s last opera—the music is slowly crushed by its own superhuman weight. Too heavy to move (like so many of the great divas of opera), it is stilled by its own gravity into something static, yet continually changing and shimmering with life. This production lasted for almost six hours and had two, perhaps even three, intervals. It swallowed up our entire evening, and ejected us late into the summer’s night, aroused, weak-kneed and shaken to the core. During the performance, while Gurnemanz was singing an interminable aria about the Grail turning time into space, the audience was absolutely quiet. Then, suddenly, there soared above the zen-like music the sound of loud, long and leonine snoring. Yet, amazingly, the snores felt like part of the grain of Wagner’s music (as did Kundry’s moaning)—as if it were the intended, natural and inevitable effect of the music on the body and mind.

Both Nietzsche and Thomas Mann have written about the sinisterness of Wagner’s designs on the listener. The music gets under our skin and into our sleep, taking over something far more interior than simply our senses or our aesthetic and philosophical sensibilities. Its claims are on nothing less than our unconscious, where all the ladders start. Each opera by Wagner, because it makes us sit and listen and watch for hours, creates its own memory system through a kind of sublime tediousness, a web of repeated and endlessly varied leitmotifs. The effect of that musical memory is as much to make us forget as to compel recollection. So, the distinction between remembering and forgetting, between making and not making an effort to listen, becomes blurred. What we forget becomes what we most deeply retain, because forgotten things sink to the rock-bottom and stay there like an undiscovered shipwreck on the ocean floor.

This drama of forgetting is also what most of Wagner’s operas are about. Think of the Ring, Tristan and Isolde, and Parsifal. They are all about circuits of forgetting and remembering, losing and recovering, and then forgetting or losing all over again what you thought you had remembered or recovered. (No wonder the Germans loved Kalidasa’s Shakuntala.) In Wagner’s universe, nothing is ever quite kept, and nothing is ever quite lost. Everything remains suspended in some sort of a vast musico-memorial cellar or attic, which we enter and explore most fully when we let go of our waking inhibitions and resistances and sink into a kind of musically-induced drowsiness, or when we recall the music later without actually listening to it. (Did Wagner know Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan”?) That is why Wagner’s music can appear to be dangerous (“Beware! Beware!”). It takes us beyond consciously held intellectual, political and critical positions, towards a negative capability that is larger and more amoral than our reasoned responses to, say, anti-Semitism or totalitarian power.

It does not matter if you have not read the libretto or do not know the story, or if you do not have a word of German. Sit in the dark, close your eyes, ignore what is happening on stage if it looks too distractingly avant-garde, and surrender to the music. And do not be ashamed if you fall asleep. But if you are the sort who finds it difficult, for psychological or political reasons, to give yourself to something larger than yourself, or to let go, then, perhaps, Wagner is not for you. He demands no musical or intellectual expertise or preparation other than a surrender to the logic of the irrational and the all-encompassing.

Slowness is essential to such a response. If the music were chopped up into manageable little bits (as in a Mozart or Handel opera), instead of making seamless transitions from one universe to another for hours on end, it could not have lulled us into this, somewhat idiotic, state of receptivity. And after one has been through this idiotizing experience, it becomes all the more rewarding to pull it up into one’s intelligent, thinking life, and to read and study and make analyses and connections. But the passive or the active, each on its own, remains an incomplete response. Yet, if I had to choose between these two ways of listening to Wagner, or did not have the time for both, I would go for the idiotic rather than the analytical.

The memory of being put to sleep by Parsifal is connected with my experience of watching two films—Tarkovsky’s Mirror and David Lynch’s Inland Empire. I do not think the latter could have existed without the former. Both are about the confusion, sadness and terror of certain baffling and painful experiences repeating themselves without resolution in our lives. They are both about the doubling of loss, about déjà vu without the consolation of a return or progress. I watched them both, for the first time, in bed, late at night and in a state of extreme tiredness, nodding off frequently. So, with neither film have I been able to work out what was going on at the level of the plot—and I have the feeling that the films were urging me to give up trying to do so. But I found it impossible to stop watching them and go off to sleep, even when I was struggling to keep awake. And the next morning, I realised how deeply they had sunk in. The feeling-world of the film informed everything I did, as a powerfully happy or sad dream determines the way we act and feel the day after, even when we cannot remember the details of what we saw. Not only its feeling-world, but also the tempo of the film shaped the rhythms of my day. I did perfectly banal things, like making the bed or taking a bath, to the pace of the film, playing on a loop somewhere in the recesses of the body’s memory.

Writers could slow us down too: think about the opening paragraphs of Portrait of a Lady about afternoon tea on the lawn, or Proust’s narrator trying to sleep in the first volume of Lost Time, or Nikhilesh’s monologues in Tagore’s Ghare Baire as the consequences of his wife’s hard-bought freedoms begin to dawn on him. But the problem with reading is that you have to do it with your eyes open—or do you? Think of how Imogen falls asleep in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline while reading Ovid’s Metamorphoses, or how the narrator in Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess dozes off in the middle of The Romance of the Rose. In both instances, to fall asleep is to wake up more keenly into the truth and fictions of what was being read. When a book, film or piece of music turns magically into space, a zone of adventure into which we can wander off and lose ourselves, who is to say where waking ends and dreaming begins, or when art begins to recede and life brings us back into the light of common day?


He woke up with a little start to the noises of the late afternoon, and lying flat on his back in bed, wondered how it could have happened. How could he have felt the pressure of his body from behind? It had happened, as it were, in a sleep within his sleep, in which he was in the other room, putting his head down on the table while watching something indifferently on his laptop. But instead of facing the garden, as it always did, the table in that room was facing the cupboard of books, above which hung the Vermeer girl. He was sitting in his usual high-backed chair with arm-rests. To have pressed his big-boned body along his back after he had dozed off with his head on the table, he would have had to sit behind him astride the chair. That was comically impossible. But he did feel what he had felt from behind him, as a gentle and unstartling surprise. It was unstartling because that pressure was familiar: the weight of his body against his own, unmoving yet moving too, into the stillness of what had to be conveyed. He knew it like a knowledge in his bones, heavy, but a weight that he could always bear, as it opened toward him like an arousal. It was another body, larger than his own and heavier, allowed to rest against his in a sort of instant slow motion, without any of the anxieties that a bigger person might produce in a smaller. It was that pressure he had felt again, this time from the back, taking his body into itself in an embrace that was more than holding another person in one’s arms. He knew that they were both smiling as this happened. With them, such comings together were always serious and always a joke, the deepest of jokes. He sat very still inside this pressure. Then, it began to withdraw; he was being released from that grave joke of an embrace. But, just as his body was about to pull away, he stretched his arms backwards and put them around him, lifting his face from the table and touching the side of his neck with his lips. He sensed, without actually feeling, the stubble and the glasses. He knew how the hair grew down the back of his neck, and the enormous head, like that of an elephant that forgot nothing. Without turning around to face him, he held him against himself as lightly as he always did in the fitful history of their holdings. And as they both sensed that whatever was happening between them was drawing to an end, he heard him say just one word, “Goru!” It was whispered like an admonishment, with the r slightly rolled. He had no memory of having taught him this word for cow. He would usually teach him only the obscenities in his own language, its shocking, unspeakable slang, which he would repeat back to him as if they were bits of poetry. But he did hear him speak the word softly into his ear—that was all. He awoke in his sleep, and then into the afternoon, certain that something, some real thing, had passed between them across the decades and the distances they had long put between themselves. “How confounding pronouns can be,” he thought, after he finished puzzling over what he had quickly got up to write, sitting at the table in the other room. The table was back now in its usual place, facing the garden, and he looked up to find that the afternoon had vanished into darkness.