At the end of the crime thriller Sicario, Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) stands on a balcony smoking, trying to relax. She has failed in her quest to uncover the darkest truths about America’s war on drugs. Alejandro Gillick (Benicio Del Toro), the film’s ostensible villain, steps out of the shadows and adds to her paranoia. “I would recommend not standing on balconies for a while, Kate,” he says.
The scene mirrors the ending of Steven Spielberg’s 2005 epic Munich, in which Avner Kaufman (Eric Bana), after years spent leading an Israeli counter-terrorism operation, is unable to sleep or sleep with his wife.
Both scenes resonate with me, because ever since I started living alone in Mumbai, I haven’t been able to get a good night’s sleep.
The reasons for my insomnia cannot compare with the burdens of those film characters, but sleep lost is sleep lost. Every night, just as I am about to fall asleep, just as my head hits the pillow, I hear a thud at the door, or the doorbell, and my mind enacts an entire home invasion scenario: thieves break down the flimsy plywood door, rush into my bedroom, I see them stand over me... It’s at that moment that I wake up, too unsettled to get back to bed.
In the warm light of day, I can see that my fear is completely irrational. I live in one of the safest neighbourhoods of the city, I don’t possess anything worth stealing, nor do I have any enemies - at least none that I am aware of.
Research reveals that Mumbai is one of the safest cities in India and the incidents of crime and home invasions are minimal. However, on the nightly news and in the morning papers, thieves are everywhere. Consequently, nothing drives away my fear – the building night watchman, the CCTV cameras around the building and at every corner of my colony, multiple locks – nothing.
In The Godfather Part II, Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) and Kay Adams (Diane Keaton) are in the process of retiring to bed. Their reverie is destroyed by gunfire. “In my home! In my bedroom! Where my wife sleeps... and my children play with their toys,” Corleone later screams at one of the suspects. The scene acts as a catalyst for much of what happens in the rest of the film, as Corleone seeks revenge on the men who destroyed his family’s peace.
I used to think that this fear of home invasions was a wholly American fear. A big part of the American dream is to live in a suburban house, a house with too many windows and multiple entry points, allowing easy access to the madmen with guns that roam the suburban streets (if news reports and horror films are to be believed).
In contrast, Indians sleep openly on the streets and no one locks their doors in the villages. Perhaps it is a problem of privilege. People steadily move into gated communities where there is no interaction between the inside and the outside. The residents want to be as far away from the street as possible. The city that never sleeps also shares my fear as policemen, barricades and metal detectors segregate almost every public space, and there are calls for further surveillance and protection.
In the Indian cultural landscape, I wonder about characters who might have trouble sleeping. I think instantly of Mogambo, who is never shown sleeping, and whose island hideout – equipped with a throne room, a control room that doubles as a missile launcher, a jail, and a lava chamber – does not seem to have a single bedroom. He spends most of his time pacing through endless corridors. That’s why he must constantly remind himself that he is happy, otherwise his restlessness will end up consuming him.
Mogambo’s insomnia is echoed by Lord Voldemort. In none of the seven books and eight movies does he ever sleep. While reading Harry Potter, one thing I always wondered about was what Voldemort would do once he vanquished all his enemies. Why did he want it so badly?
At 3am, the answer becomes clear. With all his enemies dead and gone, the Dark Lord would change into his basilisk-skin pyjamas and retire to bed in peace. There is no rest for the wicked, until they vanquish all enemies.
Perhaps the fear of falling asleep is not the fear of a home invasion at all. Maybe, this fear of the night, of falling sleep, is the fear of death. What if one were to fall asleep tonight and never wake up tomorrow? Or the fear of things not being in your control? What if you went to sleep, and got up to a morning where everything was different and life was a waking nightmare?
I look to the French for answers. And where better to turn in matters concerning a crisis of existence than Jean Pierre Melville’s minimalist gangster flick Le Samourai? It opens with a long shot of hitman Jef Costello (Alain Delon) lying in his bed, looking up at the ceiling, and smoking. It is dawn and he is fully clothed - obviously the man hasn’t slept all night. On most nights, he distracts himself by shooting people. He keeps a canary for company.
Quite a few people of this generation find it difficult to live alone. We don’t know our neighbours and with online shopping readily available, we don’t need to keep in touch with the local shopkeepers and hawkers. Ours is as an atmosphere of loneliness. To help, people take on roommates or leave the television switched on all night. On the late-night talk show Conan, actor Elijah Wood said that he too was plagued by nightly visions of a break-in. If the boy who walked beyond the gates of Mordor in The Lord of the Rings cannot sleep alone, what chance do I have? His fellow guest on the show, comedian Bill Burr, puts it aptly, “When you are alone at home, you are what’s for dinner.”
My problem remains without a solution. I chance upon a Mel Gibson interview, in which the actor provides the perfect advice, “If your number’s up, it’s up. If I’m lying in bed and somebody comes into my room, I’ll either wake up or I won’t.”
It gets easier, I learn to ignore it, but it doesn’t completely go away. One night, I order pizza home for dinner. It is pretty late – around 11:30pm – and I wonder about how many pizza delivery men have killed their customers. I Google it. On the first four pages, I only find news headlines that read: “Pizza delivery man killed by irate customer”. Sometimes, I still stay up till 5am, but now I am very amused by it.