For the homeless in Delhi, sleep comes at a price that depends on the locality and the season. A “Sleep Walk”, conducted as part of Downtime, a performing art project that explores slumber in modern, urban life, took participants to Loha Pul where the homeless take shelter at night. Walk leader Ranjan (name changed) grew up in the area and supplies mattresses and other facilities to people who sleep in the open, under the bridge or on it. Downtime is the brainchild of Delhi-based performace art maker Amitesh Grover and Germany’s Frank Oberhäußer.
“You want information and I have that information,” said Ranjan, opening the conversation with the assembled group. He pointed to the Yamuna flowing sluggishly under the bridge, its sides covered by wild grass and bushes, and went through the history of the area (“This place used to be a graveyard for children”) and its social structure (“There is no divisions of caste and religion here. We are too busy earning a living”), peppering his discourse with anecdotes about people who come here to commit suicide or even a murder.
The rattle of trains and the roar of vehicles from the bridge frequently drowned out his voice. At night, the noise becomes louder, said Ranjan. Here, mattresses cost Rs 10 through the year, unlike a few areas in the city where prices escalate to Rs 100 on cold winter nights. “Seventy five per cent of the people who sleep in the open are addicts,” said Ranjan, before turning towards a government-run night shelter nearby. “Night shelters do not allow addicts and drunks. Do you know that most of the people become addicts because they don’t get their full sleep for days on end?” he said.
The walk was conducted in the early evening, many hours before the area would fill up with mattresses and sheets, and the route stayed clear of the shacks, shops and living quarters of the locals. Like many men who inhabit this patch, Ranjan had run away from home, in Allahabad, as a child and come to Delhi where he pulled rickshaws. “I tried sleeping in my rickshaw and it was impossible. Somebody, usually drunk, would wake me up to take them home,” he said. He worked as a mechanic and attended school, all the while fighting the drug underworld. Though he has an apartment now, Ranjan’s life and work is inextricably linked to Loha Pul. “Sleeping in groups is important because, out in the open, there is safety in numbers. I found it impossible to sleep all by myself in my flat,” he said.
Grover added that the “Sleep Walk” was an attempt to understand “sleeping in public spaces” and balanced “Sleep Surfing”, an investigation into “sleeping in private spaces”. Today, Downtime’s third chapter called “Sleep Hotel” will have participants performing tasks that explore sleeping in a digital age.
Sleep Hotel will be held at Max Mueller Bhavan today, from 9 pm onwards until morning. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org