Thursday, October 13, 2011

Ride down an office lift

One of the most conscious passages I have written lately. The idea is to effect an escape from the office and the claustrophobic ride in an elevator. One of the challenges I am facing in this story is that the narrator is not the type of person who would voice his thoughts in the English of literature fiction. The narration writes over the character's own words at many places and leaves  a curious conflation of voices, some words belonging to me and some claimed by the character; a very exacting effort. Each adverb and word needs to be balanced, each comma, each semicolon deliberated on for minutes at end. I wonder if this controlled, planned effort takes away from the spontaneity of the writing.
The last rolling paragraph is supposed to stimulate the inescapable denseness inside the lift by its unbreaking relentless progress.


A clutch of people waited at the bank of lifts, more than what he was accustomed to when he left at his usual hour. None whom he thankfully knew particularly well. Of the three lifts, two were on different floors below and coming up, the one in the middle was going from the first basement to the second. No use watching for that. He sidled to the door of the lift on the nearer floor even though it seemed to have been stuck there since he had walked into the lobby. Most of the crowd was herded in front of that door, intent on avoiding others’ attentions beyond a nod or few syllables. The lift started rolling again, drumming ahead its intention with a grinding clatter and then beginning to rise slowly with the low complaining rumble of a pensioner groaning to his feet. The handful split and wagering on the other lift started shuffling towards their lift.  Unconsciously, he squared his shoulders and adjusted the strap of the laptop bag slipping on his shoulder with the other hand. Almost everyone toted laptops like him, slung on a shoulder, but a few carried backpacks. They must be much more comfortable, distributing the weight across the blades instead of printing an aching welt on one. But he was too old now, too far gone up the hierarchy, to be seen walking about with a schoolboy satchel, for that’s what it was, however black and dull and gray. That breathless anticipation as they sat packed, waiting for the hands on the clock to tick in place and release the peal trapped in the bell. The corridors racing past, the reverberation of their buckled hooves, shouts, whoops, gossips, fights – a babel released, everything rolling at once. The day still alive and sunny in its possibilities. Now only the long crawl back home – some of the people here would be on the choked roads for more than an hour – and waiting at the end of it, the joyless fix of television and sleep.
The panel over the door lit with the number of their floor. Everybody was in place now, the other lift now roundly abandoned. The lift clanged in place and in that brief comma before the doors rumbled apart, the tension was stretched like a balloon skin. A long-awaited bus rolling into a bus-stop. Worse. At a bus-stop you didn’t have to worry about keeping up your professional mask. If it came to a crunch, survival upped both civility and dignity.
The doors parted revealing a handful from the nether floors already cunningly stationed inside for the long drop back. They filed in without jostling and largely respecting the order in which they had arrived, but only just. He moved towards the back, anticipating the squeeze to only get tighter with the influx from the other floors. One of the backpackers moved to his front, an exceptionally tall and broad lad, and was now smothering him with his backpack, the embossed logo pressing on his forehead like a branding iron. He shifted his own laptop from the side to the front, poking him on the back of his thighs just enough to make him turn and realise there was someone behind him and that his boundaries didn’t exactly end at the skin on his back. He moved ahead a little, allowing him a snorkel of space. Everyone was in the lift now, packed and ready to be shipped down. He heard the doors shut.

The lift seemed to stop at every floor, moving with a lurch after every pause and pulling its squealing brakes even before it had gained full speed. Every time the doors opened and waited, he imagined a small crowd peeping inside, muttered counsels between themselves, the people packed at the door facing them blankly and awaiting their verdict, a fourth wall briefly disappeared, most of them outside deciding to give it a pass, but a few of the desperate and shameless squeezing inside; he felt the press inside becoming tighter with every stop. Trapped in his wedge of space, there was nothing he could do but absorb the sounds and shaking rumbles. He waited: a hand clenched around the strap of the bag, the other flat against the wall, daunted by its cool steely smoothness, only a callus grazing a scar etched on it. He did not have anxieties of closed spaces but he imagined being trapped like this for minutes, many minutes, because of some failure, and a flutter passed through him like the thought of one’s own death. He trusted himself to stay calm but what about the others? What if someone here got the panic attack in this confined space? Especially this giant who seemed too big for his own and others’ good. From here to the rush-hour.  Over-packed co-existence was the new paradigm.  The price extracted by progress. Claustrophobia was no longer a private phobia but a public menace: privacy no longer a right but a privilege. A raging madness – stampedes, pileups – which had to be confined and contained. The man in the front moved an arm, shaking it as if it had lost circulation. Almost like a spasm. Unconsciously, he turned his head to one side imagining the thick arm landing on his brittle nose in a flailing thwack. Whatever happened between these floors would be inescapable, beyond deliverance. They would be discovered only when the doors opened. A crushed pile tumbling out. The walls were so thick, he doubted if even their screams would be heard. To the people outside, they were something packed, boxed and in delivery. Schrödinger’s many cats. They might all be gassed and dead for all they knew. He wished the frame would not shudder so much between stops. He was beginning to feel a little light-headed and dyspnoeic. He had lost count of the floors they had stopped at but he felt that the crowd was starting to fan out again, people must be getting off. When the doors finally rumbled apart for him, he stepped out with the giddy relief of disembarking from a wearisome ride in an amusement park.

1 comment:

Tangled up in blue... said...

"He shifted his own laptop from the side to the front, poking him on the back of his thighs just enough to make him turn and realise there was someone behind him and that his boundaries didn’t exactly end at the skin on his back."

Haha, I've done this myself in local trains, jabbed someone intentionally with an umbrella when someone stepped on my toes. :D

I think it works very well, sounds rather like a claustrophobic odyssey rather than an office lift-ride actually. I just love how time seems to dilate inside the man's mind, and what takes minutes starts to feel like aeons.