I have a mortal dread of elevators. No traffic, precipice or liberally-potholed road gives me more jitters than a closed elevator, so cramped and gloomy that the idea of a dungeon with bread-and-water begins to sound like Paradise in comparison. I might have to travel ten minutes or an hour through thick, honking traffic to reach home, but the worst part is almost always the eternity-long journey in the elevator up to my seventh-floor flat. There was a time when I enjoyed riding up and down elevators in shops, but that was when they were scarce- when do we ever want anything once we have plenty of it?
This particular elevator isn’t the most modern of its kind- Elisha Otis himself would have shuddered it, because though physically safe, it isn’t the best capsule for a tired mind winging its way home. Its walls are painted reddish-brown, just a shade lighter than the black on the doors. Profanities (more morally corrupting than the Rani heart-pierced-with-an-arrow Sunil kind) are liberally engraved on the paint, covered over, engraved again with the kind of determination that, if only displayed in more useful pursuits, would have allowed us to bid for the 2012 Olympics. Anyway. The only window to the world in this elevator of ours is the narrow dusty corona between the fan on the roof and the circular aperture it is set in. All you can see through this gap are grey-brown ropes, from this angle looking much too flimsy to be able to support potato-chip-and-soda-nourished weights. The only good thing about this lift is the privacy it affords- so you can pretend to be Vanessa Mae, play air-guitar, or waltz in the arms of an imaginary (or real) partner without fear of being found out. For when the elevator does stop, it does so with a noticeable convulsion- enough time for you to unentangle yourself from those imaginary (or real) arms and put on a poker-straight face, whip out your glasses from the cavernous depths of your handbag and assume the impression of a hardworking, ill-used software engineer with glazed, unseeing eyes.
Visitors to my flat will testify to the unholy claustrophobic gloominess of this elevator, and how it can drive you to hitherto unknown levels of temporary disturbance. (I have been known to talk to the fan in the lift, pitying it for its loneliness, perched up there amidst the grime and grease.) It also has a tendency to halt at the fifth floor for no reason. When it jerks to a stop and the doors slide open in a sinister manner, they reveal, almost always (only because nine of ten times cannot be an unqualified ‘always’) a nothingness, backed only by white walls. I jab frantically at the button to draw the doors shut and retreat into the unspirited safety of my four walls. The ride further up gets progressively eerie, because at half-past four in the morning, the slightest movement in the shadows is an impetus to an active imagination. Two floors up, the doors slide open, the familiar carpet appears and ground underneath- I’m home.
There was one occasion, though, when I was scared out of my wits as I stepped out, singing to myself, only to be confronted by the surly neighbour, who isn’t the genial old ‘Uncle’ of books, but someone who grudgingly responds to your hello through set teeth, eyes boring into you as if you were a vile worm (I’d like to use the ‘If looks could kill…’ line, with a clever comparison, but looks can’t kill, so I don’t see why I should bother). On this particular morning, he was carrying a small brass plate with camphor burning on it, dressed in a dhoti and angavastram, looking askance at me as I almost bumped into him. I mumbled a greeting and walked away- spirits are trouble enough, without having to mention people. I turned the key and walked into my house, to the peace and quiet of wide spaces and large windows.