Punkah-wallahs (manual ceiling fan operators) - subjected to over exploitation in the early colonial India

Colonial India Punkahwallah at work static.ese,

That the colonial rulers from England ran a cruel and  an unethical regime in the tropical India  to keep their poor workers from the bottom strata of the society awake all through the night while they were asleep  is a disgusting fact in the colonial history of India. It was  a merciless exploitation  and an insult to India's culture and labor force They worked for 24 hours a day in shifts   with minimum wages. to keep the  employers comfortable  in the sultry summer nights and apart, they had to do other duties and chores  in the households. 

Punkahawallah, colonial India,Alamy.com

Early colonial India 18th-19th CE, Punkahwallah at work olddpics.net

The struggle for sleep has been a persistent issue for many people, influenced by various factors such as medical conditions, excessive thinking, pain, noise, insect bites, uncomfortable bedding, and temperature extremes. For the British and European settlers in colonial India, sleep was a particularly challenging issue, especially during the hot Indian summer from mid-April to early November. This period was characterized by high temperatures, mosquito bites, flies, and occasional storms, all of which disrupted their sleep patterns. The resulting frustration and fatigue were frequently documented, highlighting the severe impact of the climate on their well-being.

The inability to get a good night's sleep had significant repercussions on the efficiency of colonial rule, which valued time-discipline and bureaucratic professionalism. Poor sleep led to late starts and bad moods, as noted by a missionary who remarked, “Next day’s work becomes a burden.” The development of hill stations offered some respite and solace to the British who were accustomed to living in a mild weather condition back home, but not all officials could be posted there. Those remaining in the hot plains had to develop  some kind of regimen to take care of sleeplessness and regain  energy  following day to tide over fatigue.

One key element of this sleep economy was the punkah, a swinging cloth fan operated manually by Indian servants known as punkah-walas. The punkah was essential for maintaining a bearable sleeping environment, but it required constant labor to function. This labor-intensive technology highlights the exploitative nature of colonialism, as the comfort of the colonial rulers was maintained through the hard work of their servants. The sleep infrastructure also included suitable clothing, various types of baths, high-ceiling houses, mosquito nets, and specific bedding and food.

Letters from colonial officials and their families provide insight into their sleep routines and the measures they took to cope with the heat and hot air. For instance, RL Johnson, the wife of a Christian missionary in Uttar Pradesh, described their efforts to stay cool, including using punkahs, taking baths, and occasionally sleeping on the roof despite the frequent dust storms. Johnson’s letters reveal the dependence on Indian servants to maintain their comfort, with punkah-wallahs working all through the night to ensure a cool environment for the memsahibas  and memsahibs while they were dozing on  the job; the punkah was kept going. 

The relationship between colonial rulers and their servants was fraught with tension and exploitation. Servants were often subjected to harsh treatment if they failed to perform their duties to the satisfaction of their masters. TS Abott's  account vividly illustrates the punitive measures taken against punkah-wallahs who fell asleep on the job, reflecting the dehumanizing aspects of colonial rule.

In conclusion, the need for sleep in colonial India created a regime of exploitation and racial violence, as the comfort of the colonizers was built on the relentless labor of the colonized. The punkah and the sleep economy it supported are emblematic of the broader dynamics of power and control that defined the colonial experience.