“Have you ever wondered why people sleep on (road) dividers during summer? When cars pass by, the gush of wind prevents mosquitoes from biting. So if you wish to save yourself from dengue-malaria in Delhi, sleep on dividers”
A road divider, the space under a flyover and outside closed shops, garages, discarded pipes, the ground beneath cars, tops of trucks – the visible but unseen furniture of a city is used as beds by around 1.7 million people who work in Delhi where they live, but without a home.
In the country's capital, this furniture has given rise to at least two economies of sleep, one of which filmmaker Shaunak Sen stumbled upon, on a cold, foggy winter night.
When he was passing through Meena Bazar in Old Delhi in the early hours of the day three years ago, Shaunak’s car broke down. Getting out and trying to figure out what to do, he noticed a number of people carrying charpayis on their heads.
“The whole city is divided on the basis of sleep. To figure out the extent of someone’s power, observe the way they sleep.”
“At 1 am, the area becomes a ghost town, but I saw a large number of people congregating at spot where there were many charpayis,” Shaunak says. When he went there, he realised that there were around 400 beds in Meena Bazar, which was a “vibrant, bustling market by day”.
His interest piqued, he went back there several times to talk to people, and discovered another spot that provided such a service – a narrow strip of land under Loha Pul, the iron bridge on the River Yamuna. The dynamics in both places were different, even though they were, essentially, services of renting out space to sleep along with beds and blankets.
“We were the first to recognize the sheer economic might of sleep. They say we’re illegal but we’re the ones actually doing social service.”
Over three years, he documented their stories in Cities of Sleep, a 77-minute documentary film made with a grant from the Films Division of India. Through two people, Shaunak describes a "sleep-cinema community" and a "sleep-mafia" in the film.
“For a large number of people, good sleep is a matter of life and death,” he says.
In Meena Bazar, a somewhat caring “sleep mafia” operates after dark. A man by the name of Jamaal Bhai operates a sleep service, and homeless working people pay him for a good night’s rest.
“It was difficult to get them to trust me initially, but eventually, some of them became friends,” Shunak says. Jamaal Bhai has three rates for three services: cot, a quilt, blanket, and people paid for what they could afford. In Loha Pul, former auto driver Ranjith realised the potential in the narrow strip of land, on both sides of which, the Yamuna flows, and which is always cool in the summer.
“He’s set up a small space with sheets of cloth, put a TV set and DVD player. He has two rates – Rs 5 for three films or seven hours of sleep a night,” Shaunak says.
But during the course of the three years that Shaunak spent making the film, he noticed that the dynamics in the two places were vastly different.
Jamaal Bhai runs a “sleep mafia” that “controls an ocean of charpayis” Shaunak says. “He decides who sleeps where, when and how much. Some of his henchmen beat up people who do not pay rent.”
“If you want control over someone, don’t let them sleep.”
However, he says that the Jamaal Bhai provided “an essential service” and that his relationship with his customers was not fully coercive. “He would also provide help if someone got sick. The only person you needed to fear was Jamaal Bhai. You know that your belonging would be safe, that nobody would steal your mobile phone when you slept there. You would not have a same guarantee if you slept on the roads.”
Loha Pul, on the other hand, was an “autonomous sleep community” Shaunak says, where people would help each other out and pool in money if someone was ill and even ensure that he was taken to a doctor.
Apart from Rajith, another person whom Shaunak follows in the documentary is Shakeel, whom he describes as a “renegade sleeper” – a "beggar by profession" who’s slept in many different places and who was a treasure trove of knowledge.
Against visuals of charpayis, a Loha Pul reflecting the orangish street lights, the people in Cities of Sleep talk not just about their lives, but also about life itself. “Azaad wohi hai, jo apni marzi se soye ya jaage.”
(“Only the man who sleeps and wakes as and when he wishes, is free in the truest sense of the word.”)