Sleep is a luxury for those who struggle to get a good night’s rest. A struggle to sleep could result from several factors: medical, excessive thinking, unbearable pain, external noise, insect bites, uncomfortable bedding, excessive heat or cold. While the inability to sleep well can be frustrating in the middle of the night, the necessity for sleep in pre-electricity days produced its own violence in colonial India.

The British and European settlers in India could not sleep well for at least half of the year, from mid-April to early November. The Indian summer, combined with mosquito bites, flies, and occasional storms, paralysed their sleeping pattern, which has resulted in an archive of frequent mentions of sleep disturbances, frustration from incessant sweat and papules, and complaints of the climate.

Bad sleep led to an inefficient colonial rule, which was marked by a rhetoric of efficiency, time-discipline, and bureaucratic professionalism. A bad, fractured, and incomplete sleep could not only result in a late start to work, but also a bad mood. “Next day’s work becomes a burden,” a missionary remarked.

While hill stations in the North and South of India were being developed since the mid-19th century, not all White officials and non-officials – such as missionaries – could be posted or sent to the hilly regions of India. Those stuck in the summer of the North Indian plains and other hot places developed a whole economy of sleep infrastructure.

The punkah – a swinging cloth fan on a frame – was a summer device in use before the British had come to India, as Ritam Sengupta’s innovative research suggests. But it became the most intriguing “labour-intensive” piece of crude fan technology during colonial rule.

Part of this sleep economy was also the use of suitable porous clothing, such as Indian gauze vests, various types of baths – cold baths, mild alkaline warm baths – windows and high ceiling houses, mosquito and dew resistance nets, particular bedding, and night-time food.

It also needed Indian servants who would pull the rope of a punkah throughout the night and day with breaks in the early morning and in the evening. Installed in courtrooms, cantonments, offices, schools, European and elite Indian households, punkahs and their pullers helped colonialism function at a pace that would have not been possible had the rulers suffered from a long sleep deficit.

Sengupta’s research has covered some of these arenas from the angle of domestic labour, colonial exploitation, and the harsh treatment of servants. My focus here is on the bedrooms of the White people and their sleep to chart out how human structures of sleep could create a regime of cruel, racial violence.

A woman reading under a punkah. Credit: British Library, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.

My preliminary research suggests that colonial officials, whether Indian or British, slept between 9 and 10 pm in the summer. The White officials usually delayed their sleep to write letters to their family members in Britain or do paperwork. Here is one RL Johnson, the wife of a Christian Missionary based in Fatehgarh in Uttar Pradesh, writing to her parents in the early summer season of April:

“Since I wrote, there has been no very interesting news – unless I should tell you baby had got 2 new teeth. She has 6 now, and this is good news for her, for they were a good deal of trouble to her for several days. She seems to heat a good deal, and is just now stretched out on her little bed under the punka, asleep. She gets a bath every morning, and thinks it fine fun to get in the water, and don’t like to come out of her bathtub. Water is a great comfort in the hot weather. Last hot season, I used to get up sometimes in the night, when it was too hot to sleep comfortably, and go and take a cold bath. That would cool me off and make me able to go asleep. We were sleeping on top of the house when I wrote last, but we had so many dust storms, that we had to come down several nights in the middle of the night. This is not pleasant with the wind blowing a hurricane, and so full of sand that you can’t keep your eyes open; so we took down tent, and now sleep down stairs. The way we get on top of our house is by a stairway outside. Now for a few months, while the sandstorms come occasionally, we will stay down, though it is much cooler outside.”

Rachel Johnson and the family usually slept before 9 pm except when they had to go for late night parties to the homes of nearby Europeans. Often complaining about the lack of sleep due to the child, Johnson’s family kept permanent Indian servants to beat the heat, flies, mosquitoes, and other insects. The fan-pullers were cheap “native” labourers who stayed awake through the night as their masters took a refreshing sleep. She wrote, “Under the punka we write, read, eat, sleep, study or sew”.

Johnson’s family being a relatively lower-middle class White family could hardly employ different sets of punkah-walas. Usually, a minimum of two sets of workers were needed to cool during the day and the night. It was only in the mornings and evenings that punkah-walahs were given some relief. Otherwise, it was a story of constant labour extraction and labour evasion between the master and the servant. Here is one TS Abott writing about this struggle:

“The punka wallah plagues one almost to death. You have two sets of these men, one set for day, and one for night. Yet they are such cheats that your night men will let themselves out by the day, and then come to you at night half dead for want of sleep. They pull your punka till you fall asleep, then stop, lie down, and go to sleep themselves. By and by you awake with a start, and are wet through with perspiration, and lo! the punka hangs listlessly above one’s head. Then one gives it a pull, and sometimes it starts the fellow up, and he pulls till you are just dozing off, and then stops. By this time one’s temper gets started, and out of bed, he flies, and out he goes and find the punka man stretched out on the cool marble pavement asleep and snoring. Well, you give him a good kick, or resounding slap on the side of his head, at the same time calling him a sewer [suar ka baccha].”

Irritated Abott also threw jars of water, which his bearer usually kept next to his bed for drinking and punishing a truant servant, on the punkah-walas. Others broke earthen pots filled with water on their sleepy servants. The punkahs and punkah-walas were intrinsically webbed into the sleep economy of colonialism, allowing colonial rulers to manage the Indian summer.

The air produced from the force of the punkah varied and was called different names: the side on which the puller sat was called the Bombay side and the other was called the Bengal side. This terminology emerged from the fact that the south-western monsoon, when it hits Bombay, is at its peak and then slows by the time it reaches West Bengal.

A pair of punkah-walas would usually manage the string for twelve hours at a stretch and were then replaced by the other team. In the humid months of August and early September when flies and mosquitoes were in abundance the punkah was needed the most. The wealthy White families had punkahs over the bed, bathtub, dining table and in areas where they sat for long.

A photograph in a French magazine of a session of the criminal bench of the Karikal Court in French India, in 1895. A series of ceiling punkahs are activated by the man seated on the floor. Credit: Unspecified French magazine, 1895 issue, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Colonialists had created an edifice of physical torture to extract constant labour from fan-pullers. Middle-class families, like Johnson’s, despite being missionaries, used violent methods. Possibly referring to the tying of the hairs of servants with a rope so that they do not fall asleep, Rachel wrote, “The old fellow with the little top knot, who pretends to keep us cool, has to sleep carefully, so as not to stop pulling; or ‘top knot’ might have troublesome dreams.”

It were the tea and indigo planters in far-off secluded regions, known for their violent labour extraction, who created particular types of punishments for their punkah-walas.

One of the methods was to sprinkle sugar on the ground where the punkah-pullers sat and when they fell asleep, their ants would be able to bite their sweaty bodies. The other method was to keep a live duck or goose under the arms of pukah-pullers and those who let the bird while on duty were punished.

An assistant engineer based in present-day Bihar’s Motihari wrote in his memoir that whenever he visited his planter friends, it was a feeling of joy as “both day and night, you would be kept beautifully and continuously cool by experts”.

An article published in the Eagle magazine suggested that punkah-pullers took revenge on colonial masters in their own way. It was usually when masters were working with papers and even a bit of a sudden punkah air made the papers fly. As the masters yelled from the room behind the closed doors to slow down, the puller pressed even harder, deliberately assuming that the yell was to speed up the punkah. An irritated master would go to the verandah to yell some more at the servant.

The monotonous job of keeping the masters asleep during the night was itself sleep-inducing for servants who got as little as Rs 3 per month in the 1880s. These drowsy night servants did their household chores during the day and sometimes additional work. Colonialists complained and believed that servants did not use their daytime to sleep and instead slept while at work.

Though critical of the excessive sleeping of Indians, colonialists, like their servants, themselves took afternoon naps in the summer to meet the sleep deficit from the previous night and to relax during the peak noon hours. While there is not much research on the history of sleep patterns in India, it seems that White people slept better during the winter, and an eight-hour sleep was recommended by medical manuals.

The Indian summer was popularly called the punkah season, and the British passionately waited for it to be over. Henry M Layman, an American doctor writing on sleep disorders in the late 19th century, observed the sleeping problems of the colonial officials. In his 1885 book titled Insomnia and Other Disorders of Sleep, Layman wrote that the Indian summer with humidity was a proper cause of insomnia.

Arun Kumar is a historian of modern India based at Nottingham University. Along with his interest in sleep history, he writes on Indian labour, the history of nights, and educational inequality. His Twitter handle is arun_historian.