By Atreyo Chowdhury
Mr Ghosh sat up startled. His colleagues were staring at him. He glanced at them and returned to his boss standing arms akimbo in front of the cubicle. “Do I pay you to sleep on the job?” he bellowed, his nostrils flaring.
“I’m sorry,” Mr Ghosh mewed, wiping the streak of saliva that had dribbled from the corner of his mouth onto the desk.
A pink ball on the dark computer screen bounced about, and Mr Ghosh waited for his boss to march off. He then stretched in his chair, yawned, and rose. Caught sleeping twice in the very first week, not bad, huh? he thought, letting out a silly chuckle as the coffee machine sputtered out a cup.
All of a sudden, the odds of surviving this job appeared far better than the last company he worked for. There, he had been fired after a month-long sleeping streak. Following a miraculous stint of three years and thirty-three days in that miserable dump, his luck finally ran out, and matters snowballed when a colleague posted a video of him on Facebook. The caption read: The Art of Sleeping. The post spread through the office like wildfire. In the video, Mr Ghosh was seen with his head cupped in his hands, elbows on the desk, eyes shut, an innocent smile on his lips. It was hard to discern if he was dozing as the computer screen reflected on his glasses. But in the two-minute-long video, many of his colleagues made necessary appearances; some dancing, doing the pelvic thrust near his face, others miming and gesticulating obscenity. Eventually, the video made it to his supervisor, who laughed his head off, falling off the chair and rolling on the floor. He decided to not summon Mr Ghosh and instead ordered the CCTV cameras to be focused such that he could keep a watch.
On payday, Mr Ghosh was the only employee to not receive his salary, and he went to his supervisor to enquire. His supervisor ushered him into the conference room, where a couple of board members were present. They commended him for his hard work and dedication to the company, enthusing that he deserved a promotion or a hefty bonus at the very least. This continued for a while as Mr Ghosh spent dreaming of the car he fancied. At the end of it all, his supervisor slipped a DVD into the video player. In the footage, Mr Ghosh was seen in his cubicle sound asleep. The dates at the corner of the screen changed through the month, fast-forwarded, only to be slowed down in stretches when his supervisor gleefully appeared to wave his hand between the computer screen and Mr Ghosh to let the viewers know that Mr Ghosh was indeed asleep.
The room convulsed in the laughter of those men; old, haggard and disgusting, so much so that Mr Ghosh felt sick deep in his gut. He dashed out of the room and didn’t bother to collect his belongings. He ran to the street and caught a taxi home, to his bed, to hide under the blanket and cry, sleep, cry—repeat.
His wife, pregnant at the time, was so alarmed to see him in this state that she urged him to visit a doctor. When he wouldn’t, she grabbed him by his arm and dragged him to the neighbourhood physician. The doctor examined Mr Ghosh and dispatched him home with pills to boost his vitality. However, Mr Ghosh did not show any improvement whatsoever, and one could argue that his condition deteriorated for the worse. He neither ate nor uttered a word and simply stayed put in his bed, awake like an owl all night and repeating the cycle; cry-sleep-cry, during the day.
Terrified, his wife hauled him to a psychiatrist next. Alone in his chamber, Mr Ghosh burst into tears. He trembled, recounting the brutal, inhuman act, choking between sobs and gulping through a jug of water.
The doctor adjusted his spectacles and asked. “Do you doze off almost anywhere?”
Mr Ghosh nodded, blowing his nose in a handkerchief.
“Is the urge to sleep irresistible, almost uncontrollable?”
“Do you dream during these episodes? Do they seem real, life-like?”
Mr Ghosh straightened up in excitement. “Yes, yes!”
The doctor rose and circumambulated his desk three times. He then came to a stop beside Mr Ghosh and asked, “Would you describe your night-time sleep as disturbed, incomplete?”
Mr Ghosh almost leapt out of his chair, but the doctor patted him down in place. He made a grave face and informed Mr Ghosh that he seemed to suffer from a rare neurological disorder—narcolepsy. It was quite a mouthful for Mr Ghosh, and the doctor had to break it down into syllables.
Mr Ghosh’s shoulders drooped, and the doctor paced about the room, explaining the complexity of it. “Narcolepsy affects just two in ten thousand people. You see, it’s quite rare. Presently, there’s no cure available, and we can only work towards mitigating the symptoms… Orexin is a hormone that helps us stay awake; it is produced in the brain, and in patients with narcolepsy, the cells in that region are irreversibly damaged. The culprit is none other than the patient’s own immune system. Isn’t that fascinating?”
Mr Ghosh tried his best to follow, but the doctor seemed elusive, not only in his movement but also in his explanation. “In general, we progress through multiple sleep cycles every night, each composed of four stages.” His body and arms swayed gracefully in tune with the rhythmic drone of medical jargon he expressed in his silky voice. It was as if he was singing a lullaby and not describing a disease. “…a normal person would enter the fourth stage, thedreaming phase, only after ninety minutes. But a patient with narcolepsy would go into it within minutes of falling asleep…”
A vortex of images tumbled inside Mr Ghosh’s brain, and he found it impossible to keep his head upright. The doctor’s chamber turned misty; it began receding from his vision. The doctor’s voice, now garbled, trailed off into silence.
Mr Ghosh heard a faint tinkling of an anklet approaching, and he looked up to see his mother bear down upon him with a sweaty face and wild flowing hair. She screamed, and a gust of wind blasted across his face. A chill ran up his spine, and he cowered into a ball, shivering. He shut his eyes, and he was at his desk, studying. The room was dark except for the light from the table lamp. His pen kept slipping from his fingers, and his head kept drooping. From the corner of his eyes, he noticed a hand creep towards him as if not to disturb him, yet with a fearful intention. It picked up speed, and whack, it struck him on the back of his head. His heart leapt to his throat, and he swivelled to see his father’s face emerge out of the shadow, large angry eyes, bared gritted teeth. He could smell his breath.
In the calm after the storm,
She walked away.
Drenched in love,
I scaled the peaks, but alas…
Ms D’Souza turned from the blackboard, and the boys drooled at her sight—her curly hair and dreamy eyes. Mr Ghosh grinned, standing on a bench, holding his ears. The scent of bél flowers in her hair sent his senses into a tizzy as she walked past, reciting the poem. He closed his eyes…only to be violently roused by a thunderous cheer of a football match. He stood leaning against the goalpost, his hair ruffled by the summer breeze that carried the smell of fresh-cut grass. The scores were tied with only a minute to go, and his team fought on. He could hear the crowd applause; scream with frantic passion but could only figure out Ms D’Souza, standing amidst them, beckoning him. She looked beautiful in a simple white gown, a yellow lily behind her ear. He grinned coyly and stretched out his arms, but… whoosh, the ball whizzed past, barely missing his face. He opened his eyes to discover that the ball lay tangled inside the net as the opponent team huddled in jubilation. He had dozed off yet again, leaning against the goalpost…
“…Someone with your condition can carry on with day-to-day activities in half-asleep states, and, and…they often experience sleep paralysis while awake, conscious… Mr Ghosh? Mr Ghosh!”
Mr Ghosh sprang up in his seat.
“Was it another of your episodes?” the doctor asked.
“Um, I don’t know. It might have been.”
Outside, his wife was reading a film magazine. She looked at him quizzically, but he said nothing. He simply smiled and helped her onto her feet as she struggled with her skewed centre of gravity. Then as they returned home in a taxi, holding hands, Mr Ghosh, gazing at the passing vehicles, shops and buildings, lamented about their future. He predicted it. “I don’t know how present I’d be when you’d give birth to our child. I’d probably miss her subsequent birthdays too, his—if it’s a boy, doze off in a corner and wake up when they sing the birthday song. I’d miss the precious moments in life, like when our kiddo takes her first step or calls me papa. I’d be fired from jobs, only to keep moving from one company to another. I might not even be there for you when you need me, and you may find me snoozing on the couch as you recount your day or grouse about your friends. I’d someday purchase a car but never get to drive it, take you on a long, romantic drive. I’d create awkward and embarrassing situations, both in private and public, be a burden, and multiply your troubles as I grow old. For all that, I am sorry. I understand that those incidents would leave you helpless, angry, frustrated or even disgusted at times. But in the end, I’m certain you’d always awaken me with a smile, not with a hoot or a slap. You wouldn’t mock my imperfections or take me as lazy, clumsy or socially awkward. And for that, I’d forever be grateful…”
Atreyo Chowdhury was trained to be a mechanical engineer and has a postgraduate degree from IIT Guwahati. Besides writing, he shares an equal passion for music and travelling. He can be found at https://atreyochowdhury.wordpress.com/
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