The forest is pitch-dark, but there’s a clearing ahead where a bonfire is burning. Round the bonfire dances a little imp of a man, cackling with malevolent glee. I am not afraid, but an air of menace attaches itself to the scene.
This was a recurring dream of my childhood, one that I had every so often for several years, beginning when I was about six and coming to an end sometime before I entered my teens. I never knew what it meant or what it had to do with me, but it was always clear to me that the little man was Rumpelstiltskin, from the Grimm’s fairy tale of the same name.
Other recurring dreams of my childhood, and ones that I miss, were dreams of freedom and escape. There were the rare dreams in which I was flying effortlessly, arms stretched out wide, buoyed up by the air currents. Occasionally I soared, but usually I flew low, though safely out of reach of grasping hands. Sadly, as I grew older, the flying dreams faded away; more often I was running for my life, evading faceless pursuers hot on my trail. I ran like the wind, leaping over fences like hurdles in a race, ducking behind walls until they ran by, straining to get to a safe zone before they caught up with me. They never did; these dreams were less frightening than they were exhilarating, giving me confidence that I could always prevail.
There was one particular dream that I had only in delirium, when running a high fever—again, more frequently during childhood, but persisting into early adolescence. In it, a round ball of wool is rolling along smoothly, but somehow it starts getting tangled, tying itself in thick, furred knots. As hard as I try I cannot restore it to its original, smoothly-rolling condition. The ball and I—or perhaps I am the ball—get more and more frantic, until we are snarled helplessly in our own web.
Nowadays I hardly ever remember my dreams, recurring or otherwise. There is one recognizable category, though, that still visits me in one variant or another when deadlines and teaching terms loom: the exam dream. No one has conditions more conducive to exam dreams than Indian schoolchildren. Exam period came at least three times a year, and during that time we underwent three harrowing examinations a day. One of my most dreadful exam dreams went like this:
The exams are finally over and I am free—or I think I am. But our teacher, while striding home to grade the pile of exam papers, accidentally drops them off a cliff, and they are all lost irrecoverably. We must return to sit the exam all over again.
In childhood the barrier between waking and sleeping seemed more permeable. I would often catch myself in that hypnagogic state between the two as I was beginning to nod off. Dreams were simply part of my life, and while I didn’t dwell on them, I accepted their necessity. In the fairy tale, the young woman, in a moment of extremity, made a terrible deal with the little man: that she would let him take her firstborn child. After the baby was born, of course, she had no intention of giving him up, and thankfully, she did not have to do so. The man no longer had any power over her once she had learned his name. And it occurs to me now that while my recurring dream of the bonfire in the dark forest was disturbing, it could not be called a nightmare because at some deep level, I was safe. I could banish the little man at any time because I knew his name: Rumpelstiltskin.