Desperate for sleep in Delhi, homeless encounter a ‘Sleep Mafia’
Delhi: When midnight approaches in Old Delhi and a
thick, freezing fog settles over the city, the quilt-wallah Farukh Khan sits on
his corner, watching the market for his services come to life.
They shuffle up one by one, men desperate for sleep.
The bicycle rickshaw pullers, peeling one of his 20-rupee, or 30-cent, quilts
off a pile, fold their bodies into strange angles on the four-foot seats of
their vehicles. The day labourers curl their bodies on the frigid sidewalk,
sometimes spooned against other men for warmth.
Those who cannot afford to pay Khan build fires, out
of plastic if necessary, and crouch over them, waiting for the night to be
Does any city have a more stratified sleep economy
than wintertime Delhi? The filmmaker Shaunak Sen, who spent two years
researching the city’s sleep vendors for a documentary, “Cities of Sleep,”
discovered a sprawling gray market that has taken shape around the city’s vast
unmet need for shelter. In some places, it breeds what he calls a “sleep mafia,
who controls who sleeps where, for how long, and what quality of sleep.”
The story of privatised sleep follows a familiar
pattern in this city: After decades of uncontrolled growth, the city
government’s inability to provide services like health care, water,
transportation and security has given rise to thriving private industries,
efficient enough to fulfil the needs of those who can pay.
But shelter, given Delhi’s extremes of heat and cold,
is often a matter of survival. The police report collecting more than 3,000
unidentifiable bodies from the streets every year, typically men whose health
broke down after years living outdoors. Winter presents especially brutal
choices to homeless labourers, who have no place to protect blankets from
thieves in the daytime. Some try to hide them in the tops of trees.
The moral quandary of making this into a business is
at the centre of Sen’s film, which had its premiere at a Mumbai film festival
in November. One of his subjects, Ranjit, takes a protective attitude toward
his regular “sleepers,” as he calls them, allowing them to drift off to sleep
watching Bollywood films for 10 rupees a night. Another, a hard-nosed
businessman called Jamaal, increases his price to 50 rupees, from 30, when the
In one scene, when a man pleads, “Sir, I am a poor
man; I’ll die,” Jamaal chuckles and replies: “You’re not allowed to die. Even
that will cost 1,250 rupees.”
“Look, sleep is the most demanding master there is; no
one can stop it when it has chosen to arrive,” Jamaal says in the film. “We
were the first to recognise the sheer economic might of sleep.”
Like many of this city’s businesses, sleep vendors are
both highly organised and officially nonexistent. In Khan’s neighbourhood, four
quilt vendors have divided the sidewalks and public spaces into quadrants, and
when night falls, their customers arrange themselves into colonies of lumpy
forms. Some have returned to the same spot every night for years.
A drunken man, his hair matted, stumbled up to Khan
and begged. “Brother, please,” he pleaded, and Khan uttered a curse under his
breath, then grabbed a quilt and thrust it at him. “If I don’t give him the
blanket, he will freeze to death,” he said.
Earlier in the week, this had happened, just a block
away from Khan’s spot. The morning street sweeper had tried to rouse a sleeping
man from the sidewalk, but he pulled back the blanket and saw that the man’s
feet were stiff.
The man, who was around 35, had been stumbling around
drunkenly the night before. No one knew who he was; a police officer asked some
other men to go through his pockets, in hopes of finding identification, but
they were empty. He covered the body with a sheet, and it lay on the sidewalk
until the mortuary workers came, at sunset.
A cluster of “pavement dweller” deaths prompted
India’s Supreme Court to rule in 2010 that the country’s large cities must
provide shelter for 0.1 per cent of the population. This winter, Delhi expanded
its shelter system to accommodate more than 18,000, but the number of homeless
is vast — likely more than 1,00,000, said Ashwin Parulkar, who researches
homelessness at the Delhi’s Centre for Policy Research.
The sleep vendors, Parulkar said, thrive where the
government has failed. “They are
exploiting them,” he said. “There is a slew of public policies for these people
that are supposed to bypass this kind of exploitation.”
Khan, who has been here for eight years, says he
extends credit for regular customers to a limit of 100, or occasionally 200,
rupees. (Several shivering men, who had spent the night around a smouldering
fire nearby, snorted in disbelief upon hearing this.) He considers boundaries
between vendors so sacred that he will not step across them. He makes regular
payments to the police and street sweepers so they do not disturb his sleepers,
and he maintains close relations with the local pickpockets so that he can tell
them whom not to rob.
“It’s hard,” he said, “but what would happen if I was
not here? More people would die.” He added, “I have the feeling that I am doing
Among his clients are the inebriated and the insanely
hopeful. Mohammad Sajid, one leg misshapen by polio, was sharing a quilt with a
friend, also polio-stricken, whom he had met washing dishes at a food stall.
The two men had lost their jobs two weeks earlier, and every day their store of
money dwindled: 2 rupees to use public toilets, 5 rupees to bathe, 5 rupees for
a half-cup of tea, 10 rupees for half a quilt.
His friend was thinking of returning to his village,
at least until the cold passed, but Sajid shook his head. “I will go back,” he said. “But first I want
to make something of myself.”
Khan knows better. Come back in five years, he said,
and half of these guys will still be here.
“Everybody here is a sad story,” he said. “Why would a
happy story come to sleep here?” He poured himself a plastic cup of whiskey.
“They will get up in the morning, use the toilet, and they will be ready for
work. The system never finishes.” (Courtesy: The New York Times)