Sunday, July 10, 2005

Such a long journey

It is certainly morning, but not a very good one. It's beginning to look that way, because some comedian has hit every button in the elevator. Or it seems that way because the numbers change awfully slowly on the display indicating which floor the elevator is on now. If it takes seven seconds for the doors to open and shut on every floor, and another seven seconds to travel between floors, that's roughly 14 seconds per floor. There are 21 floors and a basement. 21 x 14 = 294 seconds = 4 minutes and 54 seconds. That's a long time to wait for an elevator. Pacing up and down the narrow corridor, I jab at the up and down buttons until my fingers hurt, and instill (first) mild amusement, (then) some alarm, (and last of all) chaos and a flurry of feathers among the pigeons nesting outside a small window. No more one-eyed stares and head shakes from them for a while. Then it arrives with a little ding and the doors open; what makes it more maddening is there is no one inside who I can glare at and mentally blame for the glowing buttons.

It jerks slightly when the doors close and hums on the way down. There is a breeze blowing around my ankles where mosquitoes are having a party. Like Bond, they just don't die. Kicking and waving of hands makes you appear lunatic but does nothing to the little beasts. They hang on. To compound the problem the elevator has now slowed - which I can feel - and come to a stop on the seventh floor. It slides open to a scene of inactivity. Whoever decided to summon the lift changed their mind and took the stairs or - I hope - has taken the quickest way down; out their balcony. The doors shut and it slowly descends to the fifth floor, where a fat schoolgirl with two unbecoming ponytails starts to walk in but halts upon noticing me, and retraces her steps. I wonder what her mum told her. Never get into an elevator if there's no lady there, she must have advised. This little girl is going to create problems for boys her own age later, torn between what she wants to do and what the little voice in her head is telling her.

Remarkably, there are no more stops on the way down to the basement, where open bags of cement and seepage from the drainage have mixed to form something that looks like modern Indian art. It will prove just as hard to get rid of. There are flies. And more mosquitoes. And spiders that have spun a web at just about the very place I walk by every morning. Ever walked through one of these? It's like you've got hair in your mouth for the rest of the day. Finally I find the car and shoo away the bloodsuckers stuck to the windows. Why do mosquitoes like windows? And if they like them so much, why don't the critters go near an open one when they're inside the car? Of course there are more inside. What monsoon season would be complete without mosquitoes buzzing around your ears while you drive?

Starting the car, I head out with thoughts of zooming down the new road outside my building, but the gates are shut. A guard is asleep in his watchroom. One tiny parp. Nothing happens. Another honk. He stirs, looks about, sees me, and his head falls back and he goes back to sleep. I open the damn thing myself, get back in, and realise that I forgot to shut the door. So in precisely ten seconds, half of Andheri's winged insects are my travel companions.

Outside, there is water everywhere. All those headlines (99% of Bombay's drains are clear!, Aamchi Mumbai no longer chi-chi!) float by face-down, dead in the knee-high water outside. A green abandoned truck is leaning against a building compound wall at a degree we didn't attempt driving a Landcruiser on sand dunes in Dubai. The driver was obviously new to the wonders of Andheri roadscapes, oblivious to the two-feet deep trenches on either side. No one mills about the truck. They walk by, lifting their kurtas and saris and pants, declining offers of a lift. Good. The car starts to make a funny drinking noise and I pray to the car god (Ferrari?) that it won't stop now. Then we reach high land and the funny drinking noise stops, instead making a clearing its throat kind of sound.

It is still morning, really early morning, and the sky is gray. But is it so gray that the driver heading in my direction has to flash his fog lights and ensure I can't see him or my own steering wheel momentarily? As punishment I drive directly at him with my fog lights on until he slows down and honks and waves his fist as he passes by. The drive to the end of the road is uneventful, though. No anger, no sounds, nothing. Then I screech to a halt, recalling the nasty policeman who always lies waiting for me around the corner. He's caught me without my seat belt so many times, he actually smiles and nods appreciatively at other times. Seat belt on, I continue down the empty road. Then a bus appears out of nowhere in an almighty cacophony of unserviced engine and overserviced horn. You may not be impeding the bus path, or could be three lanes away from it in a stationary car, but a bus driver will always let you know he's there. Heart beating at twice the normal rate, I continue in a heightened state of alertness. Reaching the red light at the end of it, I stop, imagining this one act of lawful conduct will have a domino effect and inspire an entire nation into sticking to their lines and not crossing the white line at signals. Then a few cars whizz by and, after sticking to my guns some more, I join in.

Across the junction is a gate blocked by a driverless green truck. There is nothing wrong with this truck because there is no ditch to fall into. There is just no driver. It is important that I get past this truck. Why? Because there is one other gate, but the uniformed watchman informs me that no one can use it to come in because it is an exit gate. He points to the sign. Exit. But there is no one here, I tell him. He won't lose his job if he lets me in. Sorry, he says in hindi, boss's orders. This is how random acts of violence happen at 7:30am on a Saturday. But I'll help you get through the legal gate, he says, and produces the driver of the green truck while I sit by and listen to punjabi hiphop and hindi remixes on the radio.

I drive around the empty parking lot to dock the car in a slot by the building entrance and then slowly turn off the vehicle. I turn off the air conditioner, shift the gear, lift the hand brake, remove the stereo, pack it in a protective box, open the glove compartment, put it in, close the glove compartment, remove my seatbelt, pick up my bag, check for pens and random books, and step out the car, shut the door, turn on the electronic locking system, and walk to the entrance when I hear a shrill whistle. The security guard holds his hand up and approaches with a look of deep regret. It takes him a while to get here. I wonder if he's injured in some way, but on closer inspection it's the kind of walk some develop in the city. He arrives several years later and says I can't park there because it's somebody else's parking spot. Will this somebody come today, I ask? He might, he says. Does he usually come here on the weekend? No, he says.

We reach an agreement. I'll park somewhere else if he agrees to walk faster next time. Everybody is satisfied. I get out and walk to the office entrance again. There is another whistle. The senior guard this time, gesticulating wildly and shouting, "You owl, he can't park there!" All this before work has even begun.


Anonymous said...

Mumbai in the rains, brings out a paradox in emotions.

Great post, btw :)

Jabberwock said...

Brother, ref. elevator musings, check out (if you haven't already) the first chapter of Murakami's Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.

Rahul Bhatia said...

Thanks Ash.

Jai, I'm getting to it slowly slowly. Like an elevator.