Sleepless on Facebook

The nocturnal gathering of insomniacs on a social networking site
Sumana Roy’s novel, Love in the Chicken’s Neck, was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize 2008
True Life
And then a message in the inbox: ‘Try my profile photo?’

Z is an insomniac. Please allow me the cheap thrill of giving an insomniac the alias ‘Z’. Before Z and I became friends, I only noticed the wicked, often cruel, comments that his status updates received. For months, I remained curious about a person whose profile photo was the sleeping pill Valium. Immediately after I accepted his friend request, he put up this status update: ‘People who say they sleep like a baby usually don’t have one— Leo J. Burke’. Now, I had neither: sleep, nor babies. But I hit ‘like’; it was my first hint at a possible camaraderie. ‘Your baby keeping you awake?’ he asked, tagging my name. I thought of something clever to say but failed. And so I confessed: ‘You could say that. The baby’s pet name is “Insomnia”’. It was his turn to click on like. ‘Welcome to the club baby,’ he replied, ‘but I bet you know what Ogden Nash said—“Sleep is as perverse as legislature”?’

Over the next few days, I noticed that he remained offline during the day and put up status updates all night. Curiosity is my great failing. Perhaps he was in a different time zone, I thought. What else could explain those night-long posts? ‘Where are you in America?’ I wrote in my first mail, jumping the first three questions, like a television reporter who had been allowed just one question. I’d always been miserable at sounding clever. ‘America?’ he asked, ‘I’m drinking beer on my balcony in Noida.’ Sorry, I said, releasing a trail of emoticons to convince him that I indeed was. A little later, I proceeded to explain to him what I now blamed on my ‘gradually failing intuition’: ‘Those night-long updates and posts... I thought we were living 12 hours apart.’

‘I’m a night owl,’ he said, ‘but it’s 1.15 now. What keeps you awake?’

‘You just stole my line,’ I replied. Emoticons again.

‘Fatigue is the best pillow,’ he said, quoting Benjamin Franklin.

I didn’t reply. The next morning I found this in my FB inbox: ‘Can I expect a Thank You note? At least my boring sermons on insomnia put you to sleep!’ I laughed at his mock self-congratulatory tone and put off replying for the night, bracing myself with a second-hand quote that had come to me from my philosophy-loving husband: ‘Sleeping is no mean art: for its sake one must stay awake all day—Friedrich Nietzsche.’

Days—and, as you must have guessed, nights—passed. Z’s posts gradually began disappearing from my News Feed, guided as the stream was by the strange algorithm of recent interaction between friends. I’d also lost interest in his late night performances. One is most selfish at night, and never more than about one’s sleep. How did his midnight balcony dancing matter to me? I told myself. That thought was a poor defence. In the near-silent dark of the mosquito net inside which my husband slept greedily beside me, the small town noises of the clock’s tick-tocking, the itinerant whistles of the watchman, the lonely barking of the church dogs and, often, a wayward and out-of-tune snatch of a song by a drunken man or a vegetable vendor’s cough that I had come to recognise as familiar, all these made me more aware of my lack. I turned to my phone for company and for cure. I began playing games, but the bright colours often caused eye-burn. And so the default palette of Facebook became my tempered down version of the midnight blues. I watched people staying up nights, imagined them sitting wide-eyed in front of their computers, putting up links, playing Farmville. But most of all I noticed, more than Angry Birds, angry men and women: the petitioners, the Change.org-ers were the ultimate insomniacs. I never saw them sleep. All night, causes and poems, songs and possible social revolutions kept them awake. When I mentioned them to my husband, he, a patron of luxurious sleep, said it was all performance. He is a great chauvinist of the ‘early to bed, early to rise’ dictum, and thought of this performance of insomnia as a fashionable and even necessary prop to the image of the intellectual, like Charminar cigarettes in the 1970s, the ‘ethnic’ jhola bag in the 1980s and literary theory jargon in the 1990s. As a victim, I disagreed.

And so I cited Z’s example. Z wasn’t an academic-activist, he was an engineer and entrepreneur. What could his performance of insomnia mean, if it had to mean anything at all?

I wanted to write to Z, ask him whether he’d been cured, perhaps even tell him that I missed his prologues and epilogues to my sleeping and wakefulness, but I decided against it. I didn’t want our conversation to turn into a duet on insomnia, a post-Beckettian Waiting for Sleep. Instead I put up a status update which went like this: ‘“The Citi never sleeps”, so goes an advert. Does Facebook sleep?’ I changed privacy settings so that it was visible only to a handful of my insomniac friends. The first ‘like’ came from Z.

And then a message in the inbox: ‘Try my profile photo?’

Valium? No, certainly not. Never. I protested. ‘No, counting sheep,’ I wrote.

‘Good luck,’ he wrote back, ‘I’m the richer shepherd, being older in counting sheep, but still not the sleepier.’

I had found my see-how-clever-I-am moment at last: ‘There’s very little that separates the two: an ‘l’ for a ‘h’, sheep to sleep.’

And so began a nightly ritual of Sleep Mode conversation. Q&A, sleep aphrodisiacs (cough syrup, carbohydrate rich food, allergy tabs), abstinence (coffee and unkind office gossip), and a common waiting. Suddenly my news feed began to swell with insomnia caviar again. Z’s reservoir of anecdotes and quotations on sleep and sleeplessness was immense. He could quote them on demand. ‘Most people do not consider dawn to be an attractive experience—unless they are still up: Ellen Goodman,’ he could write at 4 am one Monday, and ‘Dawn: When men of reason go to bed—Ambrose Bierce’ at around the same time on a Saturday.

It was his ‘Anonymous’ posts about insomnia that interested me the most. In them he wore his various masks and postures, sang songs like sleepless lovers did in Hindi movies, made up rhymes about what he’d eaten and how it was keeping him awake. Though I had begun to see it as performance, it entertained me. How could it not have? ‘Mujhe neend na aaye, mujhe chain na aaye...,’ he posted one night, a song from the Hindi film Dil. Though I didn’t know what he looked like (there were no photos on his page except the photo of the Valium strip), I had begun giving him a personality from his instalments on sleep. I imagined him with deep dark circles, the obvious by-products of insomnia, balding, though I wasn’t sure what relation that had with sleep, happy but tired-faced. I also don’t know why I imagined him short and dark. Perhaps it was a subconscious antonymising of a happy sleeper like my husband who was tall and fair, who knew? I laughed imagining him sing those lines, mouthed by the ‘chocolate boy lover’ Aamir Khan in the film. When I think back to it now, I am embarrassed by how I let those borrowed words transform into a personality. Other songs, in other languages, soon followed. The actor was always awake, ever ready for another instalment of his performance on sleep. And so the Bengali poet Nazrul’s song the next day: ‘Nishi nijhoomo ghumo naahi aashey...’ It is perhaps the most poetic pronouncement on a lover’s insomnia, but coming from Z it had transformed into something else. I had begun to spot—and see—how Z had gradually created a quotational architecture around sleep. His page was a grandiose pastiche on sleep. Traditions of thought didn’t matter to him. Like the waywardness of the sleeping process— for who knew where sleep came from and where it went—insomnia, when curated by Z, was a haphazard and chaotic presentation.

I found it strange that Z posted stuff about nothing else except sleeplessness. In the ‘Favorite’ section, under films, there was only one name: Sleepless in Seattle. Under books, this: Dr Sleep. It was a strange book to choose—a novel by Stephen King meant to be published in 2013. Like sleep, even his reading list was pending, it seemed to me. Under music, this song by the Bengali songwriter-musician Atulprasad: ‘Aami ekaki, tumio ekaki, aajiye aakul raatey, neend naah aankhi praatey ...’ (I’m alone, and so are you; in this broad night, there’s no sleep in my eyes’). Among other ‘Favorites’ was a man by the name of Thai Ngoc, a Vietnamese man in his sixties who hadn’t slept for more than 35 years. I can’t remember how many times I’ve visited that link on sleepless nights. Perhaps Z had meant that to be a sleep aphrodisiac?

This subculture of sleeplessness being a by-product of being in love was fairly common. It was in our films, songs, often even in the devotionals and the rhetoric of teasing. Asking for rain, for food, for love, for redemption was common, but for sleep? On Facebook, this was the new lullaby, I gradually began to realise—a faux SOS to the world calling for sleep, for help, in the end for empathy from those who were awake. This was the new victimhood. Every night, the world, and by reflection Facebook, had a new ‘Us’ vs ‘Them’. I imagined the two new emerging power centres of the world: those who sleep against those who can’t. I speculated about new power equations, revolutions by the sleep-deprived, battles which insomniacs won by night and lost during the day, a never ending feud between owls and early birds. Until one day Z put up a link about the Right to Sleep as a Fundamental Right. “Right of privacy and the right to sleep have always been treated to be a fundamental right like a right to breathe, to eat, to drink, to blink etc,” declared a Supreme Court judge, chiding the Delhi Police for using unwarranted force on a sleeping crowd, thereby linking the right to sleep with the right to privacy.

When I ‘shared’ it on my wall, reactions were various: there was a chorus of ‘yays’, as if the first battle had been won; a banker expressed his worries about employees not working and using the Right as an alibi. The most interesting comment however came from Z: ‘Right to Sleep with Anyone I Want To ... should be a fundamental right’. As always, he’d come up with the punch line. I nearly clapped.

‘Sleep is a flag we hang our days from. The direction of its flutter determines the temperature of our days. There is a difference between watching birds in a sky and those perched on a tree. That is the difference between an insomniac’s night and a sleeper’s. Right to Sleep is Right,’ I wrote. The message could not be delivered, Facebook told me. I tried a few times and then gave up.

Meanwhile my Newsfeed suggested a conspiracy against me. The first three updates were from close friends. It was quite uncanny that all three were about sleep.

The first: ‘From the verandah of my hotel room, in the stillness of the night, one can clearly hear the sound of waves crashing on water and then on sand. The waves have always sung a lullaby to me. It is reassuring to see some things never change’. ‘The waves ... and insomnia—“some things never change”,’ I wrote at 2 am in response to this holiday post from Goa.

The second: ‘Good thing about having a Salafi mosque nearby is that the azaan at daybreak is classically pronounced, tuneful, reminiscent of Cairo. The not so good thing is it happens at 3:40 am, when it might well be morning in Arabia, but is still the dead of night anywhere in South Asia...’ ‘It is better to pray than to sleep...’—a friend’s comment hung below it.

The third: ‘Long ago the people who sacrificed their sleep were called saints. Now they are called IT professionals.’

I signed out. Clearly the good sleepers had ganged up against me. Where was Z? Now that I’d lost my typed message, I thought of a more prosaic question to ask him: did you get sleep last night? The thought was a command, and so I logged in and went straight to his page. His wall was closed, the first time I’d seen him do this. The message option didn’t work. Was something wrong with my computer?

After much back and forth, from my page to his, via Home, it suddenly came to me like an epiphany. His profile photo had changed.

A month back, I’d told Z about the philosopher Immanuel Kant speculating that non-instrumental sleep might result in early death. I’d written it on his wall, my muted performance on the subject. Z’s comment still stuck to my mind: ‘Scheherazade was insomniac. Hence those 1,001 stories. Her husband slept. Do you know who died earlier? I know who’s more famous.’

‘Nocturnal wandering, the tendency to stray when the world is attenuated and grows distant, and even the honest professions which are necessarily practised at night attract suspicions,’ said Maurice Blanchot, my favourite philosopher of sleep. What would he have made of Facebooking about sleep at night? ‘Perhaps sleep is inattention to the world,’ wrote Blanchot, explaining Bergson. Facebook Insomnia Inc had changed that. Sleep here was asking for the world’s attention. For sleep was an honest profession even if it needed to be conducted under the cover of darkness. Z and I had made fun of the circus of sleep around us—the many groups devoted to Sleep, with names like ‘Dear Brain will you stop thinking so much and let me sleep?’, and of course the more obvious ‘Sleeping Beauty’—while waiting for sleep, we’d spoken about its solitude and functionality, even concluding how sleep was all outside. And in so doing, that is Facebooking about sleeping, we’d turned it into a new form of somnambulism, an ever-incremental narrative.

In spite of all such prologues and asides, in the end sleep was an absent performance. Facebook, where it was easy to maintain a log of sleeplessness, helped indulge this shared voyeurism, an illusory comradeship of suffering. A young girl once wrote a post about dreaming about sleeping in her sleep. Facebook Insomnia Inc seemed to me an offspring of that dream: with a phone under the pillow, checking for updates while waking up for a midnight trip to the toilet, updating with closed eyes in the numb hours of an early dawn, the wall between sleeping and waking seemed very brittle. Insomniacs were always Lazarus, flitting between waking and sleeping.

Z’s new profile photo was a man’s silhouette resting on a pillow. ‘S.I.P.,’ it said. The man seemed to have found some peace: vigilant over sleep for so long, Z’s photo showed him to be vigilant about sleep. Z had at last been cured of this terminal disease: he had subverted the meaning of ‘the everlasting sleep’ on Facebook. Sleep signifies the disappearance of the self. In this case, it had marked the disappearance of Z from Facebook. We’d made jokes about Rip Van Winkle a few days earlier. The ‘Rip’ stands for ‘Rest In Peace’, I once messaged him after midnight. He’d now left me his answer: ‘S.I.P. Sleep in Peace’. (‘Curtains fall’—the words formed a comment in my mind, but Z had disabled comments from his page. After sleep, who needed the applause?)

When I was signing out, a new post appeared in my Feed. It was from an economist in America: ‘Economic activity depends on sleep, but the study of the mattress industry is viewed as a sideshow’. I hit the snooze button at last.