The half-woman-half-beast, scary and yet pathetic somehow, hesitated at the door of a bus. Suddenly, there was the deafening thunder of stampeding cattle. The sun set in a black-and-white sky, and two large, ghostly eyes stared down; bearded goons appeared; there was the helpless pall of death, and I woke up terrified and howling in the dark, inconsolable. I was 7 or 8 years old and most of these mixed-up images were from a movie I’d watched a week ago, called Do Aankhen Barah Haath.
Do Ankhen... was V Shantaram’s 1957 classic on the rehabilitation of criminals. It was visually powerful and dramatic in a grand, pull-out-your-guts-and-roll-in-them way. I’d been raised on the tepid diet of 1970s Indian television, and the film didn’t so much blow my circuits, as it smashed them and danced on the pieces. My Do Ankhen... nightmare continued to terrorise me for a year or two.
My parents were very concerned – and very sleep-deprived. They tried everything – from a gold bracelet with the hair of a temple elephant woven in, to rubbing my head in circles, and asking my friends who told me ghost stories to stop (they didn’t, of course). When nothing else worked, in desperation, my non-religious mom told me the story of the reformed criminal Valmiki, and how hard it was for him to say the word ‘Rama’. Would I like to chant the word to induce sleep? I did, and went a step further: I chanted one ‘Rama’ for myself and one for my grandmother, who, being old, was a poor sleeper too. I bet she slept off faster than me though!
There’s no denying the fact that parents love their children most when they are fast asleep. And they’ll try everything to reach that state of pure love. Including bedtime rituals, which are, really, a sweet way to give someone the bum’s rush into slumber. But like me, most parents also love bedtime rituals, because after the chaos of getting kids changed, there’s that special time when it’s just the two of you, and the deep connection that is created.
Warm milk, stories, read-alouds, chats, prayers – there’s a whole spectrum of things parents try. Of course there are blunders aplenty (what would this column be without those?). My cousin regrets having got his baby addicted to being rocked to sleep. She was heavy, and their backs paid for the indulgence.
A friend’s baby held his mother’s neck while nursing, and wanted his back patted too. If mom did the patting wrong one night, he’d insist she get it right. The habit persisted and now that he’s 9, the neck-holding-plus-back-patting has his parents annoyed sometimes, and at others, happy to still have a physical connection with their son.
When my daughter was little, we shared the bed with her and a minimum of four dolls. In the middle of the night, one doll would invariably go missing. She’d wake us up to search for Komoika, Patty, Bumble or Kitty, and I’ll say this: it’s not easy telling one idiotic doll from another at 2.48 a.m!
My favourite bedtime-ritual-story features an old friend who, at 4 years, would go up to her great-grandmother at bedtime, and watch admiringly as the old lady rubbed a black nut-like herb on a stone. The resulting paste was applied to the toddler’s eyes, along with a good dose of castor oil. Next morning, the little black-eyed-pea’s eyelids would need a solid wash before they could open, but she refused to stop the practice.
Rituals reassure us and connect us to one another. For a bit, they calm the beasts that rage inside our heads, and serve as a psychological bridge from one state to the next. I love hearing about my daughter’s day and enjoy her questions. But there’s no denying that the moment I love the most is when she pauses mid-sentence and declares peremptorily, ‘Now I’m sleepy!’. And then proceeds to go right off to sleep.
This article first appeared in the DNA of March 24, 2013.