Sleepless nights in Delhi

India Gate, Delhi (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I don’t sleep well. Perhaps I have unquiet dreams. But I think it has something to do with the man who blows a whistle outside my window all night.

When I first moved to Delhi, I thought it was a drunk blowing a whistle at three in the morning. Or a madman. It was a football referee’s whistle, and he was blowing it hard, really going for it, and I thought he was going to wake the whole neighbourhood up, and that in a few moments I would hear angry voices. But there was nothing, just that whistle, all night.

When I asked the next day, it turned out he was being paid to blow the whistle. By my neighbours. And by me, in fact. He is the chowkidar, the nightwatchman, employed by the Residents’ Welfare Association of the block where I live, and paid out of our monthly dues. He’s there to make sure that no one tries to break into any of the flats or steal a car.

I thought I understood. There had been an intruder, and the guard was blowing his whistle to raise the alarm. But no. He was at it with the whistle again the next night. And the night after.

“Why does he keep blowing the whistle?” I asked my neighbour after another night of burying my head under the pillow. “Can’t we get him to stop?”

“Oh no,” my neighbour said. “The other residents wouldn’t be happy. He is supposed to blow the whistle.”

“But why?”

“So that we know he is awake.”

But we’re awake too. Some nights he doesn’t start till late, and, lulled into a false sense of security, I fall asleep only to be woken a few minutes later by the sound of that whistle starting up. Brrrrrr. Brrr-rrrr-rrrr. I moved. The whistle followed me. In the neighbourhood where I live now, there are two guards and they blow the whistles to each other across the street, trying to see who can blow the loudest. Brrrrrr! Brrrrrrrr! BRRRRRRRR!

I’ve lived in Delhi eight years and I’ve come to love the city and its ways. But one thing I still do not understand is the whistle. I cannot understand why you would pay a man to keep you awake at night. Many people have tried to explain to me, but it’s always the same explanation. People feel safer if they know the watchman is awake.

But what are all these watchmen guarding us from? Every residential neighbourhood in Delhi has them, every neighbourhood is gated. Where a friend lives, they recently put up razor wire to stop people climbing in over the fence.

But this is not Johannesburg. In my eight years in Delhi, I’ve never heard of a break-in.

I’ve often wondered if there’s something more to it. If people in Delhi have some deep-seated distrust of quiet: if they, in fact, sleep better when there’s noise outside.

Or is it a hangover from some time when knowing that the watchman was awake really was a matter of life and death, some practice from the old badlands around Delhi, which were the haunt of bandits not so many decades ago, that has crept into modern urban life?

Whatever the reason, after eight years in Delhi, I still haven’t got used to it, and I still have long, sleepless nights, haunted by that whistle.


  1. robinjabraham says

    Apart from ensuring that the watchman’s awake, it’s also a call to any thief in the vicinity to beware!
    Also we Indians love to ensure that value for money is being delivered. One of the ways to ensure the watchman is a good investment is ensuring he’s up all night:)

  2. Dad of Twins says

    My wife, even after moving to Australia, would get the twin boys (then 2+) to go to sleep telling them that if they didn’t fall asleep quick enough the watchman would take them away.

    Fortunately, at 18, they don’t remember much of it. No psychological scars from it….. but looks like Justin may have some from lack of sleep!

  3. I really like your take on the watchman issue. Where I live in Delhi, the guy bangs a bamboo stick as he walks around the compound. Last for some reason I heard it even over the fan above my bed. Thoughts of murder, moving, bribing went through my mind. Finally, I went on the balcony and asked him not to bang so hard right under my window. It seems that it worked. I didn’t hear it again so loud after that. But, I was awake. Let’s see if I can ask him to do that when he passes my place, or I will look for a another place above the 5th floor. I’d still hear it, but not as loudly. I live on the first floor.

    • Ooops, I meant to say that ‘last night’. After 7 years in Delhi, I’m also still puzzled by this silly custom. I just don’t get it.

    • Justin Huggler says

      Thanks Lii, and good luck getting the watchman not to keep you awake at night. I spent eight years in Delhi, and lived in two different neighbourhoods. In one, I persuaded the watchmen not to whistle or bang their sticks near my window, but in the second I had no luck, and they kept me awake for years. Back in London now, sleeping better0. I miss India so much in all sorts of ways — but one thing I don’t miss is the watchmen and their whistles!

  4. Abhijit Basu says

    Being an Indian, I also never understand the concept of the whistle. People around me seem to be undisturbed and not bothered by the shallow & broken sleep caused by the football ground whistle blowing at top intensity every one hour at night. I often feel angry, to the level that I want to punch the man. One night I went downstairs to ask him why he does it. But there were several of them on every nearby lane and it seemed to be the usual custom. So I moved my bedroom, put up foam linings on my windows, and later, I even changed my house. But my new place has more guards than the previous one, and everybody is happy to try the might of their lungs with a whistle in the middle of the night. Imagine my frustration.

  5. You know what’s worse? The chowkidaar shouting “jaagte rahon” (“stay awake”)

  6. i am suffering from this now here in gandhinagar Gujarat.. it’s really hard to sleep like this.. and i dont know what to do abt it.. should i complain to the police


  1. […] Behind them, I saw the security guards from my street come running. Saved, I thought. The men who keep me up all night blowing their whistles are going to come to my aid. […]

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