Sleep is My Time
Ajay Vishwanathan

Seema hasn’t slept in a long time. She doesn’t remember the last time she did. But she does recall what her husband wrote one day.

Sleep is my time. Uninterrupted by spitting words, unwelcoming to jabs of poverty, unsullied by pitiless labor. Sleep is a celestial escape, unescorted, unmarried. Sleep is my time.

Her arms and back sore again from making a few hundred bricks in the past twelve hours, Seema lies on a charpoy staring at the ceiling of her shanty.

The air is sultry and filled with the fragrance from the many boxes of incense sticks piled in a congested corner, with notes of cinnamon, sandalwood, jasmine, clove, and nutmeg. To mask the lingering smell of fly-ash that pervades the brick kilns like misfortune, Seema has over the years corralled many kinds of incense – their powerful fragrance giving her a false – yet cushioning – sense of serenity.

For her, nights in this little town in the south of India are merely days without sunshine, when people’s voices swap places with the hum of darkness, chirping of crickets, and the asthmatic breaths of her napping eight-year-old daughter.

Nights are when Seema wishes she had fled as a child to the big city to her uncle like her older brother Bharat did; wishes she didn’t have to roll out from bed at four every morning and go to the kilns. Nights are when repentance rises like a stench, for coaxing her husband to work in the brick-baking building instead of transporting bricks; she had thought then that the intense heat and constant smell of burning rubber would still be better than a battered back that often rebelled in regular spasms. But within days of moving jobs, an accidental explosion inside the building killed him and ripped away whatever little happiness remained in her life.

Occasionally, her thoughts turn brutal from the pain in her eyes that shut but cannot sleep, and she imagines herself bringing a brick down on her supervisor’s head as he ogles at yet another teenage girl in tattered clothes. The teenager dips her little hands in clay, makes balls out of it, and rolls them to the person sitting beside her who then kneads them into rectangular molds. Meek and uncomplaining, most workers squat in awkward positions all day in mud fields, face and hair smeared with ash. In the backdrop, jarringly aesthetic, are neatly arranged rows of wet, unbaked bricks, grey with company logos.

Seema rises from her charpoy and walks to an old iron trunk. She draws out a battered plastic bag with old pictures and submerges herself in them – her father with his walrus mustache looks serious in almost all of them, and her mother half-smiles in embarrassment. Bharat – perhaps six or seven – stands aloof, defiance in his eyes, having already decided, for all one knows, that he wouldn’t work in these kilns.

Children here are known not to grow very tall, likely from laboring since their early days when they find it fun to play in the sticky heat with clay and dirt and molds, black smoke constantly rising from nearby brick-baking areas. But Seema imagines Bharat as a tall, confident man sleeping on an unsoiled bed, his nights restful. She wishes she could make the pictures comes alive. Or whisper in Bharat’s ears to change history, to let him know that she always wanted to accompany him to the big city. Why didn’t you ask me?

With yearning frequently comes anger, anger at her brother for fleeing this place, fleeing the responsibility of paying back Father’s debt, a debt that has grown in the past years, shackling her tighter in bonded labor.

Seema turns around and, in the ocherous light from the kerosene lamp, she gazes at the small frame of her daughter. She goes up to her, stares at those closed eyes, and then holds her innocent hands, not soft and baby-skinned like they should be but coarse and chapped from hard work. Some days, Seema looks into her girl’s constantly watery eyes and wonders if she too will be condemned to this place for life. This place where promises of an elementary school from owners are as brittle as improperly baked bricks. Bricks that crumble when stepped on, sending the irritable supervisors into bouts of violent rage.

Hearing the steady patter of rain on her roof, Seema steps out and lets the droplets dribble down her dirt-crusted face. She looks around her at the dull emptiness, and then lies on her back by the door on the gravelly ground, eyes fixed skywards, paying little attention to the damp soaking through her cotton sari. The raindrops – now clearer, bigger, and silvery – fall like pearls from a black basket, stroking her cheeks, and glancing off her long, windswept tresses.

She remembers the times when Father and she donkey-backed to a nearby brick dealer, swaying and bumping over unpaved roads. On one of those days, the sky rumbled unexpectedly and opened up, raindrops forming misty curtains in front of them. Like sliding on a mossy floor, they slipped off the wet donkey and fell face down into the muck below, then laughed together as they watched the rattled donkey hurtle away.

Now, Seema closes her eyes, and feels the drops swoop down, as if someone were gently running his fingertips on her face. And after many long nights of insomnious wistfulness, of peering into vacant space, she finally falls asleep.

Ajay Vishwanathan is the founder and chief editor of Foundling Review. He has work published or forthcoming in over ninety literary journals, including The Minnesota Review, Southern Humanities Review, Smokelong Quarterly, and The Baltimore Review. Also forthcoming in summer 2014 is his short story collection, From a Tilted Pail, from Queen’s Ferry Press.