Every evening at 5 pm, Sandhita would enter her bedroom and shut all the blinds. She would switch on every light she could find – tubelights, bulbs, lamps, fairy lights, and sometimes even flashlights. Having done that, she would climb into her bed, pull up the covers, and listen to cheerful pop music. Then she would shut her eyes and breathe heavily, till she fell asleep. The alarm would ring at 7 pm. She would wake up and head towards the kitchen to make some dinner.
Living alone wasn’t always easy for this 23 year old. Sandhita had recently graduated from college and eagerly decided to move into an apartment in Mumbai. Though her parents had wanted her to stay in Delhi, she had felt far too old and restless to remain sheltered within her parents’ house. It was time to explore a different city, and hopefully settle down with a good job.
Her boss at The Times of India office was genial, but professional. Beneath his cheerful façade lurked a disapproval for her strange routine. When Sandhita’s evening nap routine was stealing precious hours from her work (since she fled the office like Cinderella every evening at four-thirty), her boss smiled stiffly and threatened to cut her salary. Besides, Sandhita had been falling behind on her deadlines, and if she aspired to become a truly accomplished editor, she would have to cut down on her evening naps. But she wasn’t sure how to do that.
It began in her childhood. The darkening sky, migrating birds, the occasional drop in temperature, and children rushing to get home, made her very uneasy. In fact, everything that accompanied sunsets evoked in Sandhita a need to remain indoors— with the curtains shut and all the lights switched on. Sometime during her childhood, Sandhita had developed an inexplicable phobia of sunsets; inexplicable since neither the doctors nor her family members had succeeded in associating Sandhita’s phobia to a possible triggering incident in her life.
Her coworkers always had a bash ridiculing her fear of sunsets. “Hey Sandy, you want to come for lunch with us? Oh wait a minute, we might be back only after sunset! It’s okay, you can just hide inside your office.” or, “Oh no, how will Sandy survive today? It’s so cloudy that it looks like it is six in the evening! We must call an ambulance before she spazzes out!” Or they would announce, “4 pm! Time for your nap!” All this mocking affected Sandhita tremendously. She found herself unable to fit in with her coworkers and spent most of her time alone.
One particular Monday, Sandhita was preparing to leave at four-thirty as usual, when her boss stopped her.
“Sandhita, you have been leaving this office too early every damn day! Do you realize that you’re lagging behind? I’m afraid to sat that if you leave this time, I’ll have to fire you,” he declared as he gestured towards the exit.
After much hesitation, Sandhita decided to go into her office and finally face the fading daylight. A pile of unfinished assignments and the constant ridicule of her coworkers made her feel guilty since her “phobia” was a waste of precious time that also ruined her reputation. She was tired of being the office scapegoat. Though she knew that there was perhaps a relevant childhood stigma attached to this irrational fear, she needed to face it this time. It had been an entire year since the hospital incident had occurred; perhaps any wisdom that she may have gained between then and the present could help her face her phobia.
So Sandhita stared out of the window and waited for the sky to turn from a cool, light blue to menacing red. She was so immersed in this task that her heart pounded and she could barely concentrate on her assignments. As she gazed towards the sky, she couldn’t deny that she felt a kind of a thrill. By four forty-five, she was certain that she would face the sunset fearlessly, and by five, she was very eager. But when it was 7 pm and the sun still hadn’t set, Sandhita felt the dawn of trouble.
“Mr. Tyagi!” she called out to her boss from her office. However, there was no response. She decided to call the chaiwala who was always on standby near her door.
Even he didn’t seem to be around. Confused, Sandhita stumbled out of her door into the bright day-lit corridor and walked towards the common area. Her footsteps echoed in the vacant room. The cubicles were empty, the remaining offices deserted, and there wasn’t a sign of a single human being in the vicinity. There was no need for any artificial light as the large windows at the corner of the office were enough to let in the rays — unrelenting, white, sunlight at seven in the evening.
As Sandhita stood in this deserted office and tried to prevent herself from having a nervous breakdown, she pondered over the things she learned in school about places where the sun did not set till around nine at night. However, this was Mumbai and the sunlight always began fading by 5 pm. She felt distraught at the idea of eternal daylight. Moreover, she was terrified that none of her coworkers were around. Yes, there were people on the street, but none of whom she recognized. As she scurried frantically across each floor, she discovered that the entire building was empty. When it was nine o’clock at night, the sun was still shining as bright as it was in the afternoon. That was when Sandhita decided to return to her apartment. Still in awe and rather fearful, she walked dazedly into her car and drove home.
During the drive, she attempted to comprehend her situation and the possible reason for her despair. After all, she should rejoice now that her phobia would not bother her anymore. However, she also did not want the natural order of things to get interrupted. The sun rose and set systematically, without any interruptions or abnormality. Its rising and setting were events that every average person took for granted. Although the earth’s movement around the sun was not something that humans could actively control, and though this lack of control should make humans feel helpless if nature does not pursue its usual path even for one day, mankind had somehow reconciled themselves with this fact. At least the people in Mumbai had. The shopkeepers continued screaming out discounted rates of goods, couples sat shyly on benches, and office-goers hurried home after a late shift. It was scary how the sun failed to evoke a response from the populace on the one day it decided to go against the humans’ expectations of its setting; on the one day it decided to protest its strict routine and remain in the sky.
Tears streamed down Sandhita’s face as she felt the pain at the prospect of fixity: the same afternoon daylight every day would make her life mundane. Sleep would lose its meaning and the beauty of nature would get affected. While it was true that sunsets were not Sandhita’s favorite time of the day, she couldn’t imagine the world without it. The feeling of movement, of each day beginning and ending would be gone. Life would seem stagnant. She couldn’t imagine embracing such a life. Moreover, she couldn’t bear the thought of living amongst these people, who were too immersed in their own lives to gape at this abnormality, or to even look up at the sky.
Upon returning home, Sandhita plopped onto her sofa and turned on the news on TV. She simultaneously picked up her phone and dialed her parents’ number.
“Maa, is there sunlight over there? In Delhi? Right now?”
Her mother seemed amused by her question. “Beta, I know Delhi has longer duration of daylight during the summer, but that doesn’t mean we have sunlight throughout. Though I wish we did, I have just hung up the laundry out in the balcony to dry. Your dad is so useless, he forgot to hang them in the afternoon.”
Sandhita knew her parents would either mock her in disbelief if she revealed that the sun didn’t set today in Mumbai, or they would get alarmed or visit her right away. Since she wanted to avoid both cases, Sandhita decided to talk normally to her parents and then hung up. The news channels also did not highlight anything extraordinary; Arnab Goswami vociferated passionately as usual against his opponents about the state of college education in India.
"What is happening to this world?" Sandhita thought in dismay. She ran outside her apartment and yelled to her neighbors. “Hey, everyone! Why hasn’t the sun set?! It’s 10 pm!” But no one bothered to reply. It seemed that the entire city had become mechanized — humans walked around mechanically doing their various chores, dogs barked at regular intervals, and the cars and buses plied as if nothing was wrong. Sandhita felt utterly alone and desperately cried out for the sun to set.
After a few hours of fretting and sobbing, Sandhita finally decided to make instant noodles for herself in her lonely apartment, and lay down on the sofa. For the first time ever, she felt utterly clueless about life. While it is true that life is uncertain, when one is unsure whether the sun itself would set the next day it takes uncertainty to the next level. She did not know whether the office would even remain filled with people, her coworkers; or whether the building would even remain standing on the same spot — another aspect of life that she had always taken for granted. Suddenly, Sandhita found herself in a world without night and office buildings, utterly unsure of the future. Now she had no choice but to immerse herself completely in the present and embrace the unpredictable nature of life instigated by the day when the sun didn’t set. With these thoughts, she finally fell asleep.
But when Sandhita woke up twelve hours later, the sun was still high up in the sky. She’d have to wait till 5 pm to see if it would set.