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Monday, November 21, 2011

The elevator diaries

How I learnt to make peace with the building lift


There’s something about lifts. Stepping into them is like giving yourself over to a malign god who takes pleasure in torturing you in unexpected ways. This is especially true when you live in a high rise building, a ‘skyscraper’ in Gurgaon. I live on the 19th floor of a fine tower. I love the view, I like that I can sit in my balcony and look down on the world, feel far removed from the tiny people walking on the road and can successfully pretend that I’m above it all, above the troubles, the complexes, the yearning and endless striving of the folk living closer to the ground. It’s a nice illusion.

Those people whose curry recipes I can replicate through faithful observation, whose washing I've watched flapping on rooftop lines, whose marriages I can observe unhindered through my sons' toy binoculars (I swear I've never peered!) actually have such blissful lives. They know nothing about the many terrors of taking the lift multiple times a day. Indeed, it sometimes feels like I spend a large chunk of my life travelling up and down in an enclosed metal coffin. I have nothing against metal coffins. They are spacious and clean enough and effectively move one from point A to point B. If I had been a more cheerful person, all sorts of nudge-nudge wink-wink sexual lift metaphors would have made me laugh. Instead, I'm the joyless type who thinks Sartre is great fun. So the building lift reminds me of death ceaselessly sliding up and down a string in a deep shaft. Seriously, this is the horrible claustrophobia-inducing image that leaps to my fevered neurotic mind every time the lights go off – and they go off many, many times in beautiful Gudgava -- and the lift noisily groans to a halt between floors.

The first time that happened, I immediately lost all my memsahib savoir faire and was reduced to a wailing nutcase comforted by an army of domestic help who tried every language to get me to shut up. Since all those languages sounded like a variation of Bengali, which I don’t speak, I continued to blubber uncontrollably. At first, I tried to cheer myself up by thinking of such fantastic mood boosters as Kamalahasan and Rati Agnihotri grooving in a stuck lift and romantically throwing Hindi film names at each other.
"Satyam, Shivam, Sundaram!"

But soon I grew convinced that I had approached the end of my life. What a terrible fate… especially when a whole unopened box of kaju katli was waiting for me in the fridge at home. Now, I’d never get a taste. I was about to hurl myself at the door, attempt to break through those reinforced metal sheets, which really seemed like the last chance in my state of delirium, when the lift started working.

Since then, I have become a veteran of the Stuck-In-The-Lift syndrome. The curious thing about SITL is that, like the Stockholm syndrome, it makes the victim sympathise with the captor. It’s all about perspective, see? When you have no choice you view your fearsome aggressor as a benign much-misunderstood person worthy of respect, even love. I have also introduced a certain yogic all-Indian mumbo-jumbo aspect to my relationship with the lift.

Now, when I step into the metal coffin, I give out good vibes; I exude love and positivity like some deranged baba. And voila, it’s worked! The lift now gets stuck between floors ONLY once a week. I can live with that.

These days, I don’t even look around fearfully at the others in that familiar death trap; I no longer jab the intercom and scream frantically at whoever dares to pick it up at the other end. Instead, I immediately sit down cross-legged on the floor, take a deep breath and chant silently to myself. This has had the not-unexpected result of making the other residents jittery whenever they are around me and the battalion of domestic helpers, that considered me a brainless bimbo after the first lift episode, now fairly bows when I pass.

To add a whiff of dangerous tantric madness to the whole mix, I sometimes also step out of home with uncombed hair and a fantastically wild look in my eye.

It works with the lift; it works with the super-competitive neighbours; it works with the suddenly obsequious domestic help. A memsahib cannot ask for more.

Note: The accompanying picture isn't mine. I'm too nervous to peer down the lift shaft AND click.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

High rise culture

The ultimate rulebook if you live in a Gurgaon tower

Welcome to the jungle...

Apparently, there’s something sacred called ‘high rise culture’. The term frequently makes an appearance on the notice boards of the gated apartment complex I call home, usually in the admonishing notes of the harried building manager. The poor man seems perennially aghast that residents should indulge in such unnatural activities as unknowingly pushing plant pots off balcony parapets and doing elaborate Suryanamaskars that involve throwing mugfuls of water onto the heads of unsuspecting early morning walkers below. Having often been terrorised by ardent Surya devotees, that note had me nodding in righteous indignation.

Well, the ultimate rulebook hasn’t yet been written but I assume the list of things that are also against ‘high rise culture’ include:

1. Accidentally bumping into someone’s parked car and then driving off without even waving at the close circuit cameras.

2. Using a piece of gym equipment for 21 minutes when the notice says you can use it for just 20.

3. Relieving yourself in the shower before you get into the pool; relieving yourself in the pool before you get in the shower.

4. Yelling obscenities during RWA meetings.

5. Running up a huge bill at the building grocer’s and leaving for a long assignment abroad without paying it.

6. Looking through your neighbour though both of you sit sipping your morning chai and gazing out at the world below in adjacent balconies at exactly the same time every morning.

7. Refusing to get out of the lift even though it began singing that protesting I’m-overloaded-tune when you stepped in.

8. Refusing to coo at sundry babies and pet dogs.
This last one particularly is a serious breach of ‘high rise culture’. Think about it: openly expressing your dislike for powdered babies or fluffy animals will mark you out as… as Hannibal Lecter’s sibling! It’s not a secret you want everyone to know. Really.

I have to be honest. I haven’t always been a properly, uh, high-rise-cultured person: I’m grumpy in the mornings and the thought of even acknowledging that familiar stranger in the next flat is sometimes too much to bear, and heck, I can’t help it if the lift likes me so much it has to sing a tune the moment I step into it. The only way to deal with that is to wedge myself in and accidentally-on-purpose displace some excessively polite or verbally challenged (same thing) other person. However, I can honestly say that I have never ever peed in the building pool or used gym equipment for more than 20 minutes. Indeed, it’s a miracle if I can bring myself to use either of those remarkable facilities at all.

Of course, there are paranoid days when I wonder if some grandmaster of high rise culture is keeping tabs on me. Like, did I commit some serious breach when I got loudly hysterical after the lights went off and I had to spend half an hour in a dark lift stuck between the 18th and 19th floors? Is it alright to always overtake the dawdling morning walkers more keen on gossip than exercise and was it okay to yell at the prayerful 10th floor Suryanamaskari who overturned a lota of water onto my unsuspecting head?

Yup, the rules of ‘high rise culture’ are tricky. One day, perhaps, I’ll induce the building manager to draw up a hardbound volume that lays them all out.
Without too much luck, it could be a bestseller in Gurgaon.

Note: This piece appeared in an edited form in a local paper called Friday Gurgaon //">

The picture is not the work of Manjula Narayan; it was sourced off the net. And, oh, in case you're a stalker, that's not where I actually live.

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Exhibitionist

Is everything I do now driven by an exhibitionist impulse? Have I become the woman who lives to tweet, whose life is measured in Facebook status messages?

The mask of the emoticon :p

The delivery boy from the Burmese takeaway stood at the door while the husband scrabbled about the drawers for change. I turned my many bags inside out too – the jhola from Manipur, the upcycled rubber tyre bag from Green the Gap, the chindi tukda sling bag from Khadi Bhandar, the camel hide satchel from Pushkar, the Adidas backpack… yes, I am obsessed with bags but that’s not what this post is about - and discovered a few weathered Rs 10 notes. Eventually, we managed to find enough money to keep the khauswe. And all the while I was thinking about how I was going to tweet about the experience, how I’d frame a 140-word haiku about the incredulous look on the delivery boy’s face as I looked under the flower pots for stray coins and the man of the house stole all the five rupee notes from the younger son’s piggy bank.

It strikes me that I’ve become a social networking whore, someone who lives to tweet, whose life is measured in facebook status messages, who clicks pictures only to share them with the all-consuming amorphous beast-with-the-many-brains out there. Could it be that everything I do now, every action is driven by this exhibitionist impulse, by the need to appear cool, intellectual, smart, sensitive, sexy to that shapeless, infinitely seductive phantom?

Increasingly, I also find it difficult to compartmentalise my online life and the one off it. Sometimes the two merge in such imperceptible ways I can’t later recall if I’ve developed an aversion to Person X because of something he muttered in my ear or because of the smart-alecky comment he made in an FB thread.

Then, there’s the burden of confronting daily the ridiculous ghosts of my past – the girl who sat next to me in class five, my first boss, my first unfortunate boyfriend, the funny colleague from my fifth job, long lost cousins and aunts. Before I plunged so energetically into social networking, all of them had become mere caricatures recalled by their eccentricities, worthies in flaking black and white pictures with ornate borders who were destined to people the grand ‘fictional’ narrative I would one day write. Now that they’ve all been re-infused with life, I’ll have to torture myself and think up new characters.

As my virtual life flowered, I set down some rules for myself: don’t friend current bosses, people you’ve never met in the real world, people you disliked as a child (only the last rule is still in place). Rather stupidly, I didn’t include ‘Don’t talk too much'. As a consequence, I now meet people ITRW (In The Real World, ya noob!) who react to me as I appear to them online. This is a bit unsettling because my online persona is a glib self-possessed bitch. She likes premium Scotch, she uses ‘fuck’ only when she wants to be particularly insulting, she talks a lot about her kids and gets her kicks out of being acerbic about whatever appears in the Indian print media. In person, I am not a confrontationist, like almost everyone else I use 'fuck' liberally in some company and not at all in others, and can only have a conversation that lasts longer than five minutes if the talk is about work.

So what AM I? the real I, not just the glib bitch persona or not just this mass of flesh with blood coursing through veins, electrical impulses crackling through brain, marrow in bone. The self beyond the one who’s someone’s daughter, wife, mother, social networking demon. Could all the 24,391 tweets I’ve thrown into the void in the last two years give someone an accurate picture of the me-ness of me? Do even I know what constitutes that wondrous me-ness of me? The more I think about it, the more I find myself sinking into mental contortions, my idea of myself fragmenting into a thousand little picture pixels.

On insomniac nights this insecurity about my ‘me-ness’ makes me wonder if any of the 1990 people who follow me would really care if I leapt into the Ganga without a life jacket and was washed away. Then I think about my ‘real’ friends -- the ones with whom I experienced that magical falling-into-friendship feeling in early youth, the ones I haven’t met offline for years, but with whom I now regularly ‘talk’. This continuing conversation makes us feel like we’re in touch, though each is conscious of the absence of the warmth of meeting face-to-face. Does this add to the friendship or detract from it I wonder as I move on to my next fear: Will I wake up one day and in a fit of temper brought on by an old friend’s comment on, say, an inane picture of the latest flop cake I baked, suddenly cut her off my friend list, block her on twitter and stupidly eject her from my life with the click of a key?

I am aware that these are the sorts of faltu questions that only neurotics ask. I ask them all the time as I ponder about the extent to which my online self seeps into my ‘real’ self. Are they the same thing? Will I ever understand how different or not they are? And will my life be much better if I just shut up, stopped talking so much in etherspace and forcing everyone to know where I stand on Sonia Gandhi, Lady Gaga, Narendra Modi?

Ah, I have become a social networking whore, someone who lives to tweet, whose life is measured out in facebook status messages and whose adventures are driven by an intrinsically unattractive need to look hip online.

The realisation briefly fills me with self-loathing. Then I quickly frame a status message about it that’s guaranteed to get plenty of likes. People have an insatiable appetite for self-revelatory stuff. Like this.

Picture credit: Mask that's part of the collection of the Museum of Folk and Tribal Art in Gurgaon. By Manjula Narayan