January 28, 2011

No lift to our spirits

The edit page of today's Hindustan Times (Jan 28) carries an article I actually wrote over two weeks ago. It was a reaction to news about the death of several labourers when the "temporary" lift they were riding in, in an under-construction building, collapsed.

Read the epaper version of the article here: No lift to our spirits.

Or, since epaper versions seem to vanish after a while, my original text is below. (I called it "Tale of two photos").

Comments welcome.


Tale of two photos

The photograph is stark, and tells a story all its own. A 22-storey building called La Sonarisa in Matunga, I read on the front page of the Hindustan Times (January 10), has two so-called "passenger elevators". On page 5 of the same newspaper is another report, with a photograph of what's scribbled on the door of one of these elevators: "LABOURS NO ARE ALLOWED" (sic).

That is, those passenger elevators are meant only for the residents of the building. So since there was still construction going on at La Sonarisa, and since the labourers doing the construction were not allowed to use the passenger elevators, they had to use a "temporary elevator rigged up in a shaft" to go about their labours. This elevator was in a "dilapidated condition" and "shouldn't have been there", according to municipal officials quoted in the news reports. The PWD even said it doesn't "recognize" such lifts as lifts at all, because they are only "used for ferrying goods." It never issued "permission" for this one to operate.

Permission or not, on Sunday morning the temporary elevator in La Sonarisa plummeted down that shaft from several floors up. It was not ferrying goods. It was carrying people. Labourer people. When it hit the ground, the impact killed five labourers; a sixth died in hospital a day later.

I wonder if the builders and residents of La Sonarisa have stopped to think about their policy, scrawled on the face of their recognized elevators, that forced labourers to use an unsafe elevator that authorities would not even recognize as one. I wonder if they have thought about the implications of dividing people in their building into two classes, with considerations of safety being an unimportant triviality for one of them.

Of course such division is by no means a new phenomenon, nor is it unknown to those of us who live in multi-storeyed buildings. In fact, there's a range of ways people consider these devices that ferry us up and down.

In a building I know of, one resident induced a deal of resentment among her neighbours because the kids who came to her for music lessons would use the lift to go up to her 9th-floor home. In another, vegetable and fruit vendors are barred from using the lift, even though all who live there buy from these vendors on their doorsteps anyway. In a third, residents were annoyed with "outsiders" who cause "wear-and-tear" to their lift, holding to the eccentric notion that their own use of it causes no such wear-and-tear. In a fourth, I once found a sign on the ground floor that said, and I quote, "servants and dogs are not allowed to use the lift."

And now I know about La Sonarisa where labourers cannot use the lift. Yes, that photograph says a lot.

On the edit page of the Hindustan Times (January 11), Anil Dharker finds that another photograph altogether says a lot to him. This one is of Graeme Smith and MS Dhoni, after the recent Test series ended. Dharker tells us that Dhoni's look in the shot is not one of "an upstart who is delighted to be in august company", but "one of confidence, just a bit short of arrogance." A lot to read into one smiling cricketer's face, but that's what Dharker does.

But he uses that smile to expound at length on a theme I keep thinking folks must be tiring of -- but no. Dharker says our cricketers' performance these days reflects new attitudes in India itself. Our "increasing prosperity and [our] rise as an economic power", claims Dharker, is the reason Dhoni has "the confidence of one who belongs … on the world stage." We must love hearing this stuff, given how many people speak like this.

And naturally, this is a contrast to days gone by, when our teams were "beaten before they started." In fact, Dharker tells us, in the 1970s and 1980s "Indians were embarrassed to be Indians". We're having none of that now. These days, he writes, "embarrassment has given way to pride."

As always when I hear this rhetoric, I wonder: just who are these Indians that Dharker is talking about? I lived through the 1970s and 1980s myself, here and abroad, and I know this much: I don't recall once feeling embarrassed to be Indian. I don't recall any of my Indian friends and colleagues feeling embarrassed to be Indian. In those years when we were young, many of those friends and colleagues began successful careers at the world's best-known universities, or high-powered research labs, or widely-admired corporations. Some started immensely successful businesses on their own. Embarrassed is not what comes to mind, thinking of them.

But if Anil Dharker was embarrassed to be Indian in those years, he should speak for himself. Not for hordes of other Indians. Not for me.

But apart from that, if we can divine all this meaning about India from one routine photograph of a cricket star, I wonder what meaning we should read into the photograph I mentioned to start this essay. What does that sign on the Matunga lift, "LABOURS NO ARE ALLOWED", say about India?

Does it speak of a "new-found swagger [that] suits the new India"? Or is it a reminder of an old India that refuses to go away?


Mast Qalandar said...


May be you shouldn't help the Dharkers further by talking about their opinions. They don't matter. Don't give them further oxygen.

On the lift thing:
"Does it speak of a "new-found swagger [that] suits the new India"? Or is it a reminder of an old India that refuses to go away?"

Probably the latter. I think a larger percentage of younger people do not care about such distinctions - they probably have no time for all this.

Anonymous said...

The labourers who build almost never are allowed in the finished buildings. Probably a number of people are in line to take up the risky jobs of the dead and injured. For it is even more risky for them without that job or perhaps they do not understand the risks. A very sad story that has remained true over the ages.

Anonymous said...


Check this out. Students wearing radio collars.