Mumbaiwale: What did we dream of a century ago? And what did those dreams mean?
A century-old book about folklore of the Bombay Presidency has unusual details about our sleeping life
Growing up, my most recurrent dream involved my toys coming to life and attacking me. I’d watched three Child’s Play films – could you blame me? Surely you’ve had the dream in which there’s an exam and you’re not prepared? I still have it – 20 years after my last Hindi paper. Freud and Jung would be disappointed in me.
RE Enthoven, on the other hand, would be delighted. The British-era administrator was best known for his three-volume work, The Tribes and Castes of Bombay. But his 1924 book, The Folklore of Bombay, has a wonderfully odd chapter detailing the dreams of locals across the Presidency region, and how we interpreted them. Some bits below.
Dreams had a deadline. Locals believed that “dreams occurring in the first quarter of the night are commonly believed to be fulfilled in a year. Those in the second quarter of the night, in six months. Those in the third quarter in three months. And those in the last quarter in one month”. If you dreamed just before dawn, it would bear fruit in 10 days.
Had a bad dream? You’d be told to go to sleep at once, and tell no one what you dreamt. If a man had a good dream, he should not to sleep the next night. “Early on the following morning he should communicate it to a saint”. Should one not be found, “he should repeat it into the ears of a cow”.
Dreams particularly haunted those who owed their dead ancestors something. But you could also bring on a dream by having a hearty meal at night.
It’s not just when you dreamed; it’s also what you dreamed. Seeing a cow, buffalo and ocean of milk were understandably auspicious, as were dreaming of a palace, king, Laxmi or jewels. But other good signs seem bizarre: bird droppings, ointment, curdled milk, a white snake biting the right side, newly washed clothes, walking over a layer of lead, driving in a carriage to which an elephant, a lion, a horse, or a bullock was yoked.
Other symbols of good fortune included virgins, celibate men, students returning from school, a group of Brahmins and, surprisingly, prostitutes.
There were inauspicious signs too. The obvious ones: a cemetery, demons, ulcerated skin, poison, a robbery. But even whey, mithai, laughing, studying, and my favourites: “a contest between two planets” and “an owl speaking like a man” were bad news.
“In the Deccan and the Konkan the following dreams are believed to be lucky and propitious,” writes Enthoven. “To swim through a river or the sea, to rise to the sky, to see the sun, the moon, and the planets, to climb to the top of a house, temple, or palace, to drink liquor, to bathe in blood, to be smeared with dung or covered with lice, and to eat rice and curds. It is also believed that the sight of white objects in dreams foretells success in any work or undertaking.”
The book notes how “the people of Khopoli in the Kolaba District believe that if a person sees in a dream the dead body of a near relative,” that relative will live a long life.
In Malad, “omens are derived from dreams. In case of bad dreams the god Vishnu is remembered, and the gods Shiva and Maruti are worshipped”.
This was a time when people believed certain dream symbols could also foretell death. Dreamt of bathing in oil? Your time was near. Riding south on a male buffalo in your dream? Misfortune awaits. Saw a corpse in your sleeping mind? You’ll soon fall sick.