Delhi's "Sleep Mafia" control the nights of 100,000 homeless workers

With an estimated 100,000 homeless people living on the streets of Delhi, and 18,000 shelter beds, the city's nighttime sidewalks are the only bed for tens of thousands of workers.

These workers are doubly cursed: not only homeless, but also denied any place to keep their belongings. They have nowhere to keep a blanket from night to night, so they must pay a few rupees every night for a rented quilt from a "quilt-wallah," a package deal that comes with the wallah's protection — bribes to cops and street-sweepers, advice to pickpockets to avoid the wallah's sleeping customers, sometimes even a nighttime open-air Bollywood screening.

Filmmaker Shaunak Sen's new documentary "Cities of Sleep" follows the quilt-wallahs and their customers through two years of Delhi's sweltering summers and frigid winters, providing an intimate look at the tragic deaths of the more than 3,000 unidentifiable workers who expire on the nighttime streets every year; the generosity and desperation of the more fortunate sleepers; the varying approaches of the quilt-makers, which swing from tender to venal.

One quilt-wallah, Jamaal, is a poster-child for the horrors of "privatised sleep." On cold nights, the price of his blankets climbs from 30 to 50 rupees.

In one scene, when a man pleads, "Sir, I am a poor man; I'll die," Jamaal chuckles and replies: "You're not allowed to die. Even that will cost 1,250 rupees."

"Look, sleep is the most demanding master there is; no one can stop it when it has chosen to arrive," Jamaal says in the film. "We were the first to recognize the sheer economic might of sleep."

Like many of this city's businesses, sleep vendors are both highly organized and officially nonexistent. In Mr. Khan's neighborhood, four quilt vendors have divided the sidewalks and public spaces into quadrants, and when night falls, their customers arrange themselves into colonies of lumpy forms. Some have returned to the same spot every night for years.

Desperate for slumber in Delhi, homeless encounter a 'Sleep Mafia'

[Ellen Barry/Times of India]