The interpretation of dreams and other poems

Published: Jul 28, 2019, 05:39 IST | paromita vohra

Soon Chutkan is unable to sleep, kept awake by the updates of other people's dreams. And perhaps, everyone else is stuck, too, having given all their dreams away for someone else to fulfil.

The interpretation of dreams and other poems
Illustration/Uday Mohite

Paromita VohraIn the early 1900s, a man called Charles Seligman carried out an intriguing research project. With a team of anthropologists, he began collecting the dreams of colonial subjects in South Asia, West Africa and the Pacific. The British colonisers, perhaps, also found this a compelling way to understand the minds of their 'subjects'.

A pervasive encouragement of our times is that we must dream, but 'Dream' has only one meaning. We must dream big and then we must convert the dream to reality. A dream must be a sort of marketing projection for the future, a linear ascent. Else it is useless.

But, the actuality of dreams is not so co-operative. Our dreams churn with secret desires, forbidden fantasies, rage and fear and wishes. Studded with symbols and metaphors, they insist we be poetic, not literal. We dream of skinless elephants, houses under water, lovers with cold gazes, citizenship documents we never find, exam papers we never complete, ourselves as gods or slaves, wounding or wounded, living in trees with orioles and woodpeckers, cleaning basements with purple fungus, our yesterdays and tomorrows sweeping up our present. Some people call this churning of the mind-ocean chaos and advise 'zyada sapne mat dekho.'

I know someone who says you shouldn't tell others your dreams, because you give them control by revealing a self not yet known to you. I think the real power is when they interpret your dream back to you with a flatness that makes you feel trapped and stupid. (Love can sometimes be that dream, I suppose). Some people share dreams in order to receive a prediction, others to derive one. My uncle's nanny demanded to be told dreams in order to interpret what number she should play in matka next day.

Seligman was persuaded by Freudian theory, but the dreams he encountered suggested the only Oedipal rage people felt was against colonisers, not fathers. Servile by day, their dreams raged with humiliation and anger against the violence and undermining of colonial rule. He also concluded that there was little difference between the minds of different races, including the colonising race. It's unclear what the rulers did with this data, but maybe their dreams were full of anxieties of dissent and sedition.

Dreams continue to be collected. Social media keeps asking what's on our minds and refines algorithms, harvesting desires from digital farms, repackaging it for majority views and selling it back to us as 'community standards'. No plushly plump naked bodies, not even for art's sake. No saying you feel discriminated against. Communities are good at imposing standards, too. After all, where's the place for queer dreams of ambiguous, untidy desires if you're always woke, na? Governments map our minds and bodies to interpret if we are typists or terrorists, citizens or anti-nationals. No dreaming up poems of churning feelings. No saying in verse that you are miyah. No youthfully predictable poems of rebellion on college walls.

In Sankalp Meshram's children's film Chutkan ki Mahabharat, a village discovers their Mahabharat nautanki is being transformed in real life by Chutkan's dreams. Excited, they start telling him what to dream, so they can profit from his dreams. Soon Chutkan is unable to sleep, kept awake by the updates of other people's dreams. And perhaps, everyone else is stuck, too, having given all their dreams away for someone else to fulfil.

Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at

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