November 21st, 2017

Of dreamy victories…

I conquered sleep. If I had to list some of the greatest battles I have won, this conquest would figure quite near the top of that list; and for good reason too. King Bruce of Scotland and the sage spider who sent him on his way to victory through examples of personal toil, perseverance and courage have nothing on me. The only difference perhaps is that my battles with sleep were more passive – in the sense, I used to fight sleep, but not with explicit intent. Perhaps, I must commend myself at having won a battle without even consciously trying – but who is to say I was not consciously trying? I have tricked myself so many times over the years that I have completely lost credibility with me. Any assertions I make now, I take with a pinch of salt. It might have something to do with living in the GCC all these years, where a news headline stating a definite announcement from the Government usually means just the opposite. Cynical old residents of the country like yours truly will often interpret an announcement stating that the country will not be enacting a certain law anytime soon or ever as stating that the law is to come into effect the next morning. So when I assert with conviction that I was not even trying to win this battle, I begin to think: “Hmmm… is that entirely true? Perhaps, all I was doing over the past decades was trying to beat sleep”. Thankfully, I have never been accused of being detail oriented – the big picture is all that counts in the knicq world – so, quite often, all I do after voicing such a sceptical thought questioning my real motives is move on to making the next assertion I must doubt. Yes, the big picture itself is quite skewed. Pictures are perspectives. Perspectives are nothing if not skewed.

Sleep has been my adversary for as long as I can remember. It used to bring nightmares and nightmares were a big problem. They were scary. And abstract. Things I did not understand frightened me – like they would any child. There was a psychedelic element to my nightmares. They were the kind of dreams which would be boring if I could see them in mute mode. The thing was I could not – I did not have the remote control. Sleep did, which is why I hated sleep. As I grew up, the noisy nightmares became less of a problem and more of a nuisance. Sleep figured that part out in time, and changed its tactics. For a time, it had nothing in its arsenal to affect me to any worthwhile degree. It sprang a few surprises once in a while – the one about me getting married to two girls from my class on the same day was worrisome. I was an eight year old then – and marriage at that age just meant an extra set of parents. Two marriages meant three sets of parents – seriously, who wants that at eight? Besides, I had a crush on the class teacher. Also, one of the featured mothers-in-law was one of the feared teachers at school. Cane was her best friend. Sleep was getting close, but not close enough.

Nightmares became irrelevant by the time I turned ten. Sleep was an enemy not because of its own designs on my sanity, but because it was an effective tool in the hands of my personal set of parents. With sleep and home-work at their disposal, fun became something mentioned under the head of opportunity cost. Consistently. I don’t know about others, but when you are a student in the Pakistani school system there is always enough homework for you to finish in a day if you have a twin to help you with it. Have I told you I did not have any twins? None to my knowledge at least. If my parents decided to keep only one of the two ugly babies, they never told me about it. If, on the other hand, they had adopted one of the two ugly babies, they probably did drop a few hints about that – but I wasn’t paying attention back then. It’s too late to broach the subject now. Besides, I am not an ugly baby anymore – too old for that tag.

So, I had twice the homework I could finish. My options were often limited. Either I would finish half the homework for each subject or finish only half the subjects. The good thing about finishing half the homework for any subject was that you did not stand back when you had to submit the notebooks. The bad thing was such homework was often returned with “Incomplete!” written across your hard toil’s fruit – my feelings were not easily hurt, and if it were just this exclamation I had to deal with, I would have managed quite well. The trouble was all such exclamations had to be counter signed by a parent – your own parent. Mushtaq Ahmad Yousufi had once pronounced the judgment that in our education system failures had only two careers to choose from. The healthy ones went on to join the army, and the feeble bodied and mild-natured were made teachers. It is not my place to doubt the truth of Yousufi saheb’s verdict. But I will certainly make the following observations as addenda to his pronouncement:

1. The feeble bodied ones were only pretending to be feeble bodied to escape military service. They grew healthy and plump in later years, and if the corporal punishment they meted out were any indication, they had it in them to defeat the most ferocious enemy.

2. The ones who made teachers were cunning and sadistic. They pre-empted our defence tactics, ensnared us with mountains of homework, and led us into killing fields with their requirements for those countersigns to their ‘Incomplete!”.

Come to think of it, my addenda have little to do with Yousufi saheb’s pronouncement. Thankfully, he is not reading this blog. Not to my knowledge.

Why, you might ask, did I not try and finish the homework in its entirety like the other children? There were always some who used to finish their homework. I had no idea twins were that common. Well, apart from the fact that I did not have my twin around, I did not completely finish my homework for two reasons:

1. The handwriting practice: The parents had a great tool in their hands. If at all, you finished your homework, or managed to convince them you had, you did not get off easy. You got handwriting practice, because let’s face it – you wrote as if you had written with your feet, while so and so (invariably there were family friends or cousins who were in the same grade as yourself, and whose parents’ idea of great group fun activity when your parents visited them was showing the homework of their children to the visitors) wrote as if stringing pearls into necklaces – or whatever it was the pearls were strung into. They were never specific – the parents. The desi idiom for writing in flawless hand is stringing pearls.

So, you had to write and write and write until your words looked as if you had strung pearls – which of course never happened; because you wrote as if with your feet and no-one strings pearls with feet. ‘Jeem ka paet’, the curving half circle of the letter ‘jeem’ was particularly hard; and all passages chosen for hand writing practice began with “Aaj” – today, a word which ends in ‘jeem’. Needless to say, the stringing never got done. So much so that when one grew up and went away to distant places to try and get an education, one worried about writing home. Invariably, the responses from home started with a commentary on your handwriting.

The interesting thing is that in later years, one got an opportunity to compare notes, the proverbial kind, with the very stringers of those pearls. Would you believe it, they used to live the same nightmares as us? Apparently, they never strung any pearls. They just wrote with their feet. We strung pearls. Apparently, there is a lot of subjectivity that goes into deciding who used the appropriate limbs for writing and who did the stringing.

It made sense, therefore, to get done with the homework in time enough to finish with the inevitable hand-writing practice later on.

2. Sleep: If all else failed though, there was always sleep. It was always time to go to bed. The time between finishing one’s homework/handwriting practice and sleep was often just about enough to be force fed Okra, Egg plant, meat, fish, rice and all things not ketchup, french fries, cheese and jam.

Eventually, one’s resistance broke down. One got conquered, and comfortable with the idea of sleeping. One grew up resenting it, but… well, sleeping it.

Years passed, and one did not even realize that one was a faithful subject of the Sleep Raj. Slavery is such a curse. But then, some months ago, I realized that sleep was running my schedule, my life. That was when I woke up, so to speak. I fought back. And now, I have positively conquered sleep. For over a month now, I have not slept at any regular time, for any regular time. In a given 24 hours, I have slept for anywhere between one and six hours – and I have not followed any schedule. I have stayed up nights, and then not slept in the morning even. I have slept at noon and woken up a few hours later to stay up for the next 16-18 hours. On no two days, have I gone to bed at the same hour. Sleep does not run me anymore. I run it.

It’s a sweet victory.

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