My eight-year-old daughter is insistent. "Papa, papa, I must have that Barbie dream once more, the one which you brought me last Sunday. Please, Papa, please!"—this, when she sees me shaking my head—then, shrilly, "I want it now! My Barbie dream!"
I sigh, and get dressed, and pick up my wallet. She jumps around in joy, clapping her hands. "Papa has agreed! Whoopee! I'll get my Barbie dream tonight!"
"Come on, honey," I tell her as she runs to put on her shoes. "But this is the last dream I'll buy for you in a month, do you hear?" She pouts a little, but her delight soon triumphs, her delight at going to the park to meet the man who sells dreams.
It is five o'clock in the evening. There he is, at Calcutta's Rhododendron Park, chatting with the ice-cream man on his right. In front of him, squatting on the grass, is the vendor of fruit juices, sodas and colas, who is absent-mindedly drawing patterns in the dusty grass with a stick. The others are there, too, the usual crowd—the jhalmuri-and-dalmut wallah, the aloo-chat papri-chat wallah, and the vendor of cashew-nuts and groundnuts, who is busy chewing a mouthful of paan and talking, as usual, nineteen to the dozen.
I've never asked the guy his name—who bothers to remember the names of street-side vendors?—but he knows my daughter's name, of course, just as he knows the names of all the other children in the neighborhood. "So what will it be today, Ruby? Another Barbie dream?"
And he chuckles at our astonished faces, his small, bright, button-like eyes glinting with amusement in his wizened face. It is a kindly, gentle face, lovable, and he is truly much loved by all the kids of the locality.
My next-door neighbor is there, too, looking harried, and his son is haranguing him for a new dream for tonight, a dream about the soccer World Cup final. "No, no, it's too expensive," Vicky's father argues, but I can see he is weakening. In the end, he not only shells out two hundred rupees for the World Cup dream for his son, but also picks up a smaller one, on a local soccer match, for himself—for seventy-five bucks.
He gives me a rueful look, nods his head in greeting, and walks off with his son in a huff, but I can see that he is secretly glad. He knows Vicky will have a sound night's sleep, at the very least. He, himself, too, will go to bed early, to watch the football match in his sleep. No TV for him tonight!
I look at my daughter's jubilant face, and my own heart lights up. It doesn't seem that much annoying now to shell out a hundred rupees for that Barbie dream for Ruby. She clutches the small cellophane-wrapped packet he gives her to her chest, as he tells her affectionately, "Be careful you don't drop it now, Ruby! You know how fragile and delicate those dreams are!"
The dense blue of the tropical sky is tinged with mauve, the arson of flame-trees in spring blazing in the golden light of the setting sun. I suddenly feel lighter, happier, and then I pick up a small orange balloon as well for her, at just seven rupees a steal. Ruby walks slowly, carefully, with the string of the balloon in one hand, clutching the precious Barbie dream to herself with the other.
The thin, short man, he with the balding pate and bright eyes, waves cheerfully as you walk away. He is always dressed in the same shabby clothes, a pair of dark gray trousers and a faded check shirt. His face is lined and careworn, but there is always a smile and a greeting on his lips for everyone.
Sometimes I wonder why he goes around collecting dreams from all corners of Calcutta every day, making his living selling them to young people in Rhododendron Park in the evenings. Why does he do it? How does he do it?
One evening, I ask his fellow vendors, in passing. What do they know about him? Very little, it turns out. He appeared at the park a few months ago, no-one knows from where, and set up shop. No-one knows where he comes from, or where he lives.
I haven't heard of anyone else who sells dreams anywhere in this city, of course—and he might even be the only vendor of his kind in the whole world.
Why is that so, I wonder fleetingly, but in the kaliedowhirl of my days, the thought evaporates very soon into the thin mist of oblivion.
Someday—though not right now—I'll sit down with him, and coax out his story. How he goes to New Market to gather the dreams of shopkeepers, selling everything from Barbie dolls and Harry Potter novels to toffees and lozenges, cakes and pastries. Sweet dreams to keep your child blissfully asleep through the night. Spicy dreams of tiger shrimp–chopsuey–hakka noodles from the restaurants at China Town, flavored with garlic sauce. Pleasant dreams from the Children's Museum about toy trains and dinky cars; refreshing dreams from Sharbat Palace, of sundaes and butterscotch and tutti frutti; delightful dreams of swashbuckling cowboys from Hollywood westerns, or mutant turtles, or Jedi knights at the cinema halls at City Centre. All these go into his huge burlap sack.
And that's not all. He visits Orient Row to pick up the dreams of the artisans there: filigreed silverware, delicately traceried with arabesques and imagination. He goes to Garden Reach to collect the salty-tanged, sand-laced dreams that trickle from the eyes of weary, sozzled sailors. From College Street, he garners the sepia dreams of university professors and students, rustling with the dog-eared pages of books and monographs and manuscripts. From Chowringhee Square come the word-blunged thoughts of newspaper editors and reporters: succinct, geometrized, syntactic. He goes to Burra Bazaar to collect quite a different kind of images from tradesmen's eyes as they snore, stuffed with figures, bloated with profits and bookkeepers' accounts, rows and columns from their registers, to add a dose of leavening realism to his bag. From Raga Road come the intricate tonalities of the musicians' conference. From the sweet nothings whispered at Lovers' Lane, he picks up the stuff of which many a pleasant night's sleep is made. And from the temples he sources the sandalwood-scented, incense-perfumed, hymnal-chorused REM sleep of the priests, devotees and singers. He even goes as far as Diamond Harbor to collect the whisky-sodden dreams of tourists from hotels and cafeterias, and to the video parlors and cybercafés near Metro Alley to cull fantasies for adolescent boys and girls.
Fascinated, I plop down on the grass next to him, and listen to him as he rambles on. I listen wonderingly as he talks about his fine, almost invisible, silvery net, which he spreads out to catch the dreams as they come floating out from the windows and doors of houses and buildings, before they can disperse into the night air. I ask him: What does he do with these midnight harvests?
He sifts through them very carefully, casting out the violent images and sounds, discarding the bland, insipid pictures, weeding out the nightmares, censoring out the wet dreams. Snipping off the rough edges of nocturnal hallucinations, he turns them into gorgeous technicolor marvels, kaleidoscopic with vibrancy, novelty, and delight.
Some of the dreams are like jelly crystals, quivering and trembling; others are as fragile and gossamery as spider's silk; yet others are delicate and variegated like butterfly wings or flower petals. There are also multicolored and scintillant viscous gels. The rest are frangible, like pieces of glittering, translucent crystal.
He cuts the chunks, dices them into little pieces, red and blue and yellow and green and purple and orange and pink, and packs them in wrappers of transparent cellophane. He wraps them all very carefully, after washing them with his special elixirs and drying them. Or, if they are like gels, he pours them into little glass bottles. And some he grinds into powders, and stores them in small plastic jars.
All you have to do is to open them and rub the jelly or gel or powder gently on your child's eyelids, and presto! she is asleep in a trice, happily gurgling away with visions of Barbie dolls or cuddly teddy bears, magic carpets or flying horses. You can make out from the delighted smile on her face and her echolaliac murmurings how much she is enjoying her sleep.
He has every kind of dream in his kitty—from adventure stories to fairytales to comic strips and cartoons. And many other exciting, soothing, enjoyable, delightful dreams. What a treasure-trove!
Someday, I decide, I'll ask him why, but why, he works so hard every night, making his living this way, trawling through the sleep of strangers from all corners of our city to gather oneiric nuggets of happiness for children and teenagers?
Someday, in the evening, when the violet shadows of twilight are creeping across the park, and the bushes are sparking with fireflies and glow-worms, with the pyrotechnics of their passion—I'll sit down with him and coax him to open up.
Then, for the first time, I'll see a wary look come into his eyes.
"How do you do it? Why do you do it?"
He averts his face; he is hesitant. Diffident. Evasive, even.
But my curiosity gets the better of me. Slowly but surely I persuade him to speak. I worm his story out of him.
"I can't sleep a wink at night—or in the daytime, either. That's why I keep working all the time, harvesting dreams from the sleep of people from all over the city, and their afternoon siestas, too. I bring them to the park so that the little ones, at least, can have a good night's sleep themselves, with blissful dreams!"
"But why? What's the reason for such terrible insomnia?" I'm astounded.
He clams up. It takes all my persuasive powers before he looks vacantly at the far distances and dredges up from the shadows of forgetting a small house, more of a cottage. With his wife and two small children, a boy and a girl, sleeping soundly inside. A burst of flames—and I, too, can suddenly feel the heat of the inferno as it consumes the cottage with his sleeping family, reducing them to charred heaps of bones and ashes within just a few minutes.
"Nothing I could do—I had arrived too late that night from a drinking binge at an arrack den. An overturned kerosene lamp in one of the huts, and the conflagration had reduced all the houses in our neighborhood to cinders."
An accident, of course. But there were whispers, then rumors, of arson—more so after a swanky shopping mall soon came up on the very spot where the settlement was gutted. But the firebugs were never caught.
He swore off hooch after that, he says.
As I listen to him, my eyes, too, start to glisten, and now I understand what insomnia really is, how it robs a man of all his happiness and joy for years on end, till he starts selling other people's dreams to make his own life worth living.
Srinjay Chakravarti is a writer, editor and translator based in Salt Lake City, Calcutta, India. A former journalist with The Financial Times Group, he has worked on the editorial staff of an international online financial news service. He has also worked on the editorial staff of a daily newspaper in Kolkata.
His creative writing, including poetry, short fiction and translations, has appeared in over 100 publications in 30-odd countries. His first book of poems Occam's Razor (Writers Workshop, Calcutta: 1994) received the Salt Literary Award from Salt, the Australian literary and publishing organization headed by writer and academic John Kinsella, in 1995. He has won one of the top prizes in the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Memorial Poetry Competition 2007–08.