AT LAST the time has come when my earliest contributions to THE HINDU -- which were in the form of reflective essays cast in the mould of the insightful classical essays in modern English literature -- have started turning 50 years old one by one, since the beginning of this year.
Thus, four months ago I fished out my 1963 essay on the billiards marker, and featured it in this blog (Fifty Years Later, The Marker Lives On!, 14 Feb. 2013). And a few weeks ago, during the Railway Week in India, I had dug out a 1965 essay on the human element of the Indian Railways (The Railwayman : Still A Romantic And Familiar Hero!, 13 April 2013).
And now, here's my character sketch of the familiar figure of the liftman in the business districts of any major Indian city in the mid-20th century, published by THE HINDU in June 1963. A significant aspect of these reflections is that even 50 years after they were captured in this text, they are substantially true of the average liftman in urban India today, in spite of the remarkable changes which have materialized in recent decades in the whole environment of business houses and office buildings. Moreover, although I never went abroad till more than 15 years after I wrote this essay, I have since obtained the recurring impression that operators of elevators in many parts of the world bear a fairly close resemblance to my liftman.
But then, that kind of longevity and universality seem to be true of almost all the characters I had sketched in my visionary debut days as a literary journalist!
THE HINDUThe Liftman
2 June 1963
2 June 1963
PROMPTLY at nine the liftman turns up to start his work. He's seldom late for his work, for he usually lives in the basement of the same building, and his whole world begins and ends there. In fact, you might almost say the lift is his living room -- and that, perhaps, is the reason why he's so apt to fall asleep while waiting for someone to ring for the lift, and has often to be woken up with a determined pressing of the button.
Though he's cooped up all day long within the four narrow walls of his lift, the liftman sees a great deal of life indeed. Hundreds of people brush past him day in and day out, year after year. You might think he sees far too many faces every day for him to remember them all; but you'd be quite wrong there. The liftman has a prodigious memory for faces: not merely for those who turn up regularly or frequently, but for all the others too. Dale Carnegie couldn't teach him anything on the art. Once you've been inside his lift, he's never likely to forget you. He might have given you the impression that he was half asleep when he took you up to your destination just a couple of floors above; but that casual glance he had given you, while pushing aside the collapsible door to let you in, was enough to fix you in his mind for ever. You'll notice a faint gleam of recognition in his eyes when you next meet him, no matter how long afterwards it is; and he's bound to remember the floor you went to on the previous occasion.
Naturally, however, the liftman has a special regard for the regular faces. These, of course, belong mostly to the executives and other employees of the various institutions housed in the building. But there are a few regular visitors too, In fact, these the liftman knows even better, since mostly they arrive and depart individually and not with the peak-hour tides, and sometimes they actually get into conversation with him. The liftman, as a rule, is no great conversationalist, and it costs him a great effort to come out of his long spells of silence and talk to a friendly guest. But being essentially good-natured, he seldom shows any resentment at being talked to, and tries to be as communicative as possible, even if the passer-by is unduly inquisitive about his monotonous existence.
Not that the liftman's life is as monotonous as it may appear to be on the surface. In fact, there could be no better position than his for observing human emotions and fortunes in all their varied shades. He knows the regular faces in all their kaleidoscopic moods, the regular figures in all their transient shapes. He has watched with interest the gradual transformation in the appearance of many a junior clerk turned executive. He has known the big bosses at their dynamic best; he has watched them ageing and slowly losing their poise; and he has missed them after their exile from his territory. He has been an eye-witness to the tragic transformation of the flamboyant young secretary into a drab, colorless person. He has read many a tale of glorious achievement and of frustrating failure in the galaxy of faces which tirelessly orbit around him. If only he had the talent, what a moving saga of human affairs he could write! If only he were an accomplished artist, what telling pictures of human drama he could depict in paint! Under the constant bombardment of such vivid impressions of life upon him, the liftman unconsciously acquires, in spite his artlessness, a serenity of bearing which one might well envy.
The liftman, I am inclined to believe though, is compelled to kill a great deal of his time with reverie. No doubt his day begins hectically, with group after endless group of people to be transported swiftly, efficiently, courteously. So does his day end; and during the lunch-hour too the traffic is heavy enough to keep his mind pinned down to terra firma. But between the peak hours he has to sit on his lonely stool at the lift door, crushed by the overpowering dullness of the moment, staring at the bleak wall in front of him -- or, if he is lucky enough, at a small strip of traffic in the street across the main gate. Being no intellectual, he finds no pleasure in reading; nor can he often afford the luxury of strolling up to the gate and having a brief chat with the watchman. So what else would he do, I wonder, except let his fancy take uncharted flights above the clouds?
But what is it that he dreams about? Is he merely thinking about that better-paid job in that other building for which he had applied not so long ago? Or does he see himself as one or another of the many vigorous tycoons who cross his path every day? Could it be his secret ambition to arrive elegantly at the building, wearing an impeccable suit, cigarette dangling from his lips -- to walk up to the lift, and casually press the button? Or would it be that he wants to own this building, and several others besides, and sit in a high leather-topped chair, interviewing candidates for liftmen's posts? Or is his imagination so rich really that it stretches far beyond such trivial things, and makes him dream of conquering the whole world, or of spreading the message of peace and love across the oceans? Who can tell?