I had a strange dream last night. I dreamt that I was dreaming. What did I dream that I was dreaming about? I will come to that in just a moment. The moot point is, why could I simply not have had a dream? That is what most normal people have, when they hit the pillows and count to twenty or count sheep, if that is their preference. Just a simple dream. Unless it was a nightmare. Applying the same logic you could also, I suppose, have a nightmare that you were having a nightmare. Why did I have to dream that I was having a dream? All very complex and rather Freudian. Which is hardly surprising because that was exactly what I was dreaming that I was dreaming about – having a conversation with the much-celebrated shrink, Sigmund Freud. When I finally woke up from the dream, I realized that I was still dreaming that I had woken up from the first dream. So, I went back to the land of Nod, when my mobile phone alarm finally woke me up, and I rubbed my eyes, relieved that I was no longer dreaming, or indeed, dreaming that I was dreaming. So complicated.
Let me back up a bit here. As most normal people who sleep and dream know only too well, it is an extremely rare case where one can recall precisely what one was dreaming about. Once the mists of sleep dissolve, you can only have a bare-bones recollection of what your mind-at-rest was going through while you slept fitfully. Sometimes the dream disappears altogether only to play back much later, while you are fully awake, leaving you in a state of torpid unease – a sort of déjà vu that I cannot quite put my finger on. I take a cynical view of people who have a tendency to chunter on endlessly about how they dreamt they had scored 500 not out in a Test Match, won the Wimbledon final thrashing Djokovic in straight sets, played the lead violin to rapturous applause at the New York Philharmonic under the baton of Zubin Mehta, split the atom, found a cure for cancer or had a tête-à-tête with the Prime Minister over tea and dhoklas and what a lovely man he was, contrary to how a handful of cynics perceived him. Some of my mean-spirited friends might aver that being invited to tea by the PM should be classified as a nightmare, but I shall dismiss these ne’er-do-wells with the contempt they deserve. If nothing else, the dhoklas would have been scrumptious. To say nothing of the khandvis.
Let me get back to my dream. Or the dream within a dream. I am not sure which is which. Anyhow, there I was, minding my own business, lying comfortably on a leather couch in a luxuriously fitted-out, oak-paneled room somewhere in the Austrian capital, Vienna. I could vaguely hear a sonorous voice counting down from 10. Ending with 4,3,2,1 and a sharp snap of the fingers. I woke up with a start, eyes wide open, and spoke those three immortal words, ‘Where am I?’ I could have added, ‘And who the devil are you?’ but the bearded visage got ahead of me.
‘Good morning. I am Sigmund Freud, your psycho-analyst. You have just woken up from your second dream. As we speak, you have moved to your first dream, but you do not know that. You are still fast asleep and dreaming that you are being interviewed by the world-famous neurologist and founder of psychoanalysis. I shall be asking you a few questions, after which I shall release you from your first dream and you will be home and dry.’
At this point, I found utterance. ‘Look here, old man. All this is rather Freudian. Ha ha,’ I chuckled at my own weak joke. ‘But seriously, how the heck did I get here, even in a dream, first or second? And clearly Mr. Freud, modesty is not your middle name. World-famous neurologist and founder of psychoanalysis? Even though you say so yourself?’
‘I say so myself because it is what it is. Anyhow, you are not here to talk about me. Tell me about yourself. What seems to be the trouble? Time to unburden.’ The shrink sounded a bit shirty. A shirty shrink!
‘The trouble Sir, is that I went to sleep with nary a care in the world. When I woke up, or thought I had woken up, it appears I was still sleeping and dreaming. That was in my cozy home in Bangalore. India, in case you are not aware. Next thing I know, I have woken up again in a strange room in Vienna, travelled back in time and am being quizzed by an Austrian loony doctor.’
‘Not just any Austrian shrink, I’ll trouble you, and less of the loony doctor stuff, if you please. Let’s have some respect. I am here to help you. Don’t worry your pretty little head over first dreams and second dreams. They are all the same. The function of dreams is to preserve sleep by representing as fulfilled wishes, that which would otherwise awaken the dreamer.’ He might have been Austrian but he was talking double Dutch.
‘Yeah, I follow you completely. Do you think you can call Starbucks and order a skinny latte for me. That’s coffee. I really could do with a pick-me-up. Get one for yourself, if you like.’
The psycho-analyst looked befuddled. ‘My friend, I cannot understand a word of what you are saying.’
‘That makes two of us,’ I retorted.
Freud went on. ‘You are still in a dream state. Once you wake up, your life will return to normal. For now, just imagine you are drinking skinny whatever-it-is and your thirst will be slaked.’
‘Gosh, you speak funny as well. I can’t wait to wake up. By the way Doc, what year is this that I have woken up in but in restful slumber on my second dream, or first dream?’
‘1930, and Hitler and his Nazi Huns are swarming all over Austria. My own life is in peril. I am a Jew, you see.’
‘I am sorry about all that, but why are you filling my head with your troubles? I am supposed to be the patient. Anyway, it was all such a long time ago, and you were rescued and shipped off to England where you died a couple of years later. I am talking to a ghost. In my dreams. God almighty!’
Sigmund looked distraught. Bad memories. ‘I am sorry about that. Shouldn’t have taken you back to my terrible past. Most unprofessional. Bit of a slip.’
‘A Freudian slip, eh?’
He guffawed good-humouredly. ‘Good one. Look, all this has given me a thirst. I am also feeling somewhat pooped. Need some caffeine. Cup of coffee do you nicely?’
‘Good call, Doc. Not too much milk, and don’t spare the sugar. Can you stretch it to a croissant?’ In my dream state, I looked forward to the coffee. ‘Shall we carry on with the session, Sigmund? Hope you don’t mind my calling you Sigmund. We are now practically on first name terms.’
‘No issues, my friend. As time is running out and I have more patients waiting, I have to gradually conclude this session, stimulating though it has been. Now let me wrap this up by asking you again. What is it exactly about your dreams that is troubling you.’
‘It is not the dream itself, or the dreams themselves, that bother me. Like you as I am sure, I have had all kinds of dreams, and I have learnt to live with them. As I told you earlier, it is the fact that I am dreaming that I am having another dream that I am unable to cope with. There I am, telling off the Income Tax johnnies who are crawling all over my apartment, that I have nothing to hide, and just as their chief honcho is about to gyve my wrists and haul me off to an unknown destination, I wake up in a sweat, but immensely relieved. “Thank God it was only a dream,” I tell myself, only to realise that I have lapsed into another dream involving my landing in Bangalore from London and promptly being hauled off by customs officials into the red channel and being administered the third degree. Can’t take it anymore, Doc. One bad dream, theek hai. Par for the course. I can handle that. Two bad dreams is pushing the envelope, and not in a nice way. Capiche?’
‘My, my, Italian and everything. These are anxiety dreams, my friend.’
‘Tell me something I don’t know, Doc,’ I riposted.
‘You may be worrying about something altogether different but it manifests itself allegorically in your dreams as troubling touch points. I know a patient who frequently dreams that he is in the middle of a fancy, stylish party. With no clothes on. Not a stitch.’
‘Absolutely. In the buff, as we say at our annual psychoanalysts’ ball.’
‘Thank heavens I haven’t reached that stage yet. Maybe if a third dream intrudes on the first two, a fate worse than death may also eventuate.’
‘Now, now. Let us not get melodramatic. Yours is a simple condition. My diagnosis is clear. There are too many things going on in your life. These daily occurrences and thoughts of everyday life is what I have coined as “dream-work,” which are nothing but “secondary-process” thoughts which become subject to the “primary process” of unconscious thought. These, in turn, are governed by the pleasure principle, wish gratification and the repressed sexual scenarios of childhood. In sum, it is all about dream distortion, displacement and condensation of the repressed thoughts to preserve sleep. You have nothing to be concerned about. That’s it for now. The bill’s in the mail by dream post.’
At which point, my alarm went off. Again. Alarm bells, more like, contemplating Freud’s bill in the post. I sat up in my own bed. My wife was fast asleep and everything appeared to be kosher. I let out a stifled yowl of relief. Thus awakened, my wife asked me what the matter was. I skipped the whole Freudian episode and replied that I had just dreamt I had solved The Times Crossword Puzzle inside a world record three minutes.
‘In your dreams,’ she mumbled and turned back to sleep.