I have always viewed lifts – elevators as they are formally addressed – with suspicion.
There’s something vaguely hostile about a lift that used to make me break out in cold sweat. Faced with one, my instinct, even today, is to turn around and look for the stairwell. But when you’ve thirty floors of pure concrete to scale, you don’t have many choices. And that was how I took to riding the elevator that elevated me to the thirtieth floor of the World Trade Centre in what was back then, Bombay. Some of the lifts, if I remember right, stopped at all floors, but the others were ‘express lifts’ that stopped only at the 10th floor and beyond. I could feel my heart literally sinking into my stomach each time I was in an express lift that lifted itself at high speed till the first ‘stop’ came.
I was, at the time, one among the many fresh graduates who worked short stints in rather fluid capacities, basically filling the gaping holes in the woodwork at the newly opened office of the World Trade Centre up there, among the clouds. That didn’t stop me from feeling rather important though; me from the back of beyond, actually working 30 floors – or thirty one, if you counted the ground floor as well – above ground level in one of the then tallest structures in Bombay, if not India itself.
In time, as the once-gleaming chrome ash-trays in the lobby took on a perpetual ruddy hue from the continuous assault of betel juice from irreverent mouths, my natural fascination for all things around me started overriding my unnatural fear of lifts. And soon, I found myself spending more time looking around, than listening to my heart thudding away as the lift lowered itself to the ground. The lobby, with its stained glass windows and high ceiling, was certainly worth looking at, but as always, it’s the people part of things that I found most interesting.
People – they came in all shapes and sizes, colours and numbers!
There were the fresh-grads like me, still wet behind the ears, trying desperately to look all savvy and sophisticated. There were the executive types, the men in black trousers and white full-sleeved shirts, their ties choking them; the women in fitted skirts and blouses bursting at the seams – all of them trying not to sweat as we walked in from the humid outdoors. There were the cleaners with their seen-it-all-done-it-all look, their jaded expressions speaking volumes as they surveyed their surroundings. There were business people, identifiable not only by their ‘safari’ suits, but also by their dark glasses and slim briefcases. Then there were the power people – the CEOs and the likes – in their power suits, with their ’hanger-on’s hanging on, their importance showing in the way they walked, in the way they talked, in the way they looked down upon others – even those who were taller by a foot.
All of us stood waiting in the lobby; in the mornings to go up, in the evenings to come down, during lunch breaks to and from taking a stroll. We waited, the fresh grads, the cleaners, the executive types, the businessmen, the CEOs – we waited thinking out thoughts, talking shop, reading the latest Sydney Sheldon, doing crossword puzzles from Midday or Afternoon. We waited patiently, we waited cursing. But we waited – every one of us.
And when the lift came, we piled in with an unconscious collective sigh of relief, still thinking, talking, reading and doing crossword puzzles.
The Midday crossword used to be a feel-good one, back then at least, easy to solve and yet made the solver feel all intellectual. Having completed that day’s before my friend did , I looked around triumphantly, pretending to be bored. The usual crowd was there – only the faces were different, not the types.
My friend, with her infinite wisdom given by two months’ seniority over me in the office, pointed out the some of the bigwigs present. I bit back what would have been a bout of totally inappropriate giggle at the ridiculous amount of bling that sharply contrasted with the sober suit and white mane of an elderly CEO; and was thankful I did so when my friend enlightened me that my current ‘employed’ status was dependent solely on his mercy. An eager businessman clinging to every word he uttered confirmed the old man’s importance in the grand scheme of things.
Soon, people started getting off in ones and twos, and when the 30th floor came, my friend and I got off the lift, along with a dabba-wala and went in opposite directions towards our respective cabins. It was as I was sitting bored, waiting for some kind of work to happen, that the irony of the whole ‘lift situation’ struck me.
The lift – it was such a leveller!
Like death, the elevator too did not differentiate between people. The 10 by 10 mobile cubicle wielded such power over us – it could and did torment us according to its whims and fancies. When it came it came; when it didn’t, you waited. It did not matter who you were – young, old, powerful, helpless, provider, providee (like employer and employee?) or anything in between – it treated you just the same.
For a moment, I couldn’t help but wonder if we were so different from each other after all, we who waited day in and day out – for days, months, years, and lifetimes – for a tiny, inanimate object to take us to our destination. The colossal little-ness of us, humans, at the end of the day – it’s such a sobering thought!
Over the years, I have been reminded of my own insignificance, my own helplessness, on so many occasions. Like when I am caught in a traffic jam in Dubai. I don’t know if you have noticed it, but all men (and women) are equal in the eyes of a traffic jam. Everyone is treated with supreme disdain, regardless of who they are or which million dollar car they are driving.
I’m reminded of it while waiting to meet the class teacher at my son’s open house. I look around and see a class full of parents from all walks of life, the only common factor among us being the palpable nervousness which we try hard to keep hidden from others. The verdict from the class teacher is what is going to validate or negate our existence as parents, at least on that particular day.
I’m reminded of it again while waiting anxiously with half a dozen others in the IMA blood bank late at night for a bag of platelets that is urgently required to support my mother’s bypass surgery going on elsewhere in the city. Next to me was a young man waiting for a bag of blood for his 5-month old daughter.
Time and again, for fleeting moments, I remember that I am dependent – physically, mentally and emotionally – on so many factors beyond my control. That I’m human, transient, and as such, just like anybody else.
And yet, very often, I forget.