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Nowhere to go

Eighty minutes in an airport elevator trigger off contemplations about the illusion of being in control of our lives
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First Published: Fri, Jan 04 2013. 05 21 PM IST
Being trapped inside an elevator can be a reminder of how little we have moved in our lives. Photo: Thinkstock
Being trapped inside an elevator can be a reminder of how little we have moved in our lives. Photo: Thinkstock
I had left early for the airport from my Copenhagen waterfront hotel, so that I could go through the security quickly and then relax in the lounge over coffee before my flight home. I got into the lift, pressed “2” and waited. The lift moved a little and then stopped. I pressed “2” again. The lift moved a bit again, about an inch or so, and then came down. But the door did not open. I pressed “G”, to return to the ground floor. The door did not open. I was alone.
I kept pressing the various buttons, and nothing happened. There was an emergency bell, and next to it, a sign saying I should press it for 30 seconds at least. I did, and counted till 45. There was no response. I tried pressing “G” and “2” again; to no avail.
I pressed the emergency bell again. After about 20 seconds, I heard a crackling sound. I explained I was stuck in the lift. I had a flight to catch. There was still an hour. I was fine.
The man at the other end said I shouldn’t worry; someone had been summoned, and I should be out within 5 minutes.
There was no reason to panic, then. I started thinking rationally—I’m in Copenhagen, part of the rich world, where things work, are meant to work, and if they don’t work, there’s always emergency help available. Folks here speak English. The lights hadn’t yet gone out. This was Saturday morning; a busy time at the airport. Someone will come.
There was no cellphone reception in the lift. I decided to read. A day earlier I had sent my sons the full text of Pico Iyer’s recent essay in The New York Times, “The Snake in the Garden”. Iyer writes about the pointlessness of anguishing over what would never come to pass. “The very place that was teaching me surrender—the beauty of its spaciousness was that I didn’t have to control a thing—had been undone by my recidivist mind,” he wrote, recounting his anxiety about the imminent arrival of a friend who in the end doesn’t come. In my case, I wanted to leave.
But Iyer had a point—it was foolish to worry about something beyond one’s control. That spring he had been reading Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus. “It is not circumstances that define us, the Stoics wrote again and again; it’s our response to circumstances. And insofar as anxiety is to a large extent in the eye of the beholder, it’s also in the power of the beholder to control,” Iyer wrote.
Iyer’s essay was calming. I reminded myself it could be much worse—I remembered the sad story of Nicholas White, a 34-year-old American who was trapped in an elevator for 41 hours one weekend in October 1999 in a midtown Manhattan skyscraper. That wasn’t exactly calming when I realized it had been nearly 45 minutes since I had entered the lift. I pressed the bell again.
I heard a woman’s voice from the other side. She asked me if I could speak English. She said I should not worry; they were working on the problem. I said I had a flight to catch. She said that they were trying hard, and that I’d be fine. I said I was feeling slightly breathless—not sure if I did feel it, or if it was psychosomatic, and I was craving attention. She told me to relax and sit down; there was enough fresh air inside. But I took off my jacket, sweater and T-shirt. I was perspiring.
From being funny and amusing, the episode had already moved from being boring to annoying, irritating, frustrating, and now slightly worrying. The woman on the other side asked me again how I was feeling. Not fine. But saying that would make no difference, so I sighed and said, fine.
This is how prisoners must feel, I thought. In a tiny cell, without windows, with dim light, and no fresh air, they spent days, not knowing when they’d be free. No seat to sit on; not enough space to lie down, and the miserable feeling of being entirely at the mercy of someone outside.
It had been 80 minutes now. But the lift started to move—half-an-inch, half-an-inch, half-an-inch, downward. It landed softly. I felt the door rattle and open.
The light was bright. I put on my T-shirt and walked out immediately, before the door could shut again. I saw the Danish woman waiting outside who had been talking to me. She was a security officer. She put her arm on my back, and steadied me with her other arm.
It could have been worse. I could have been stuck with someone claustrophobic; someone who might scream; someone speaking in a language I wouldn’t understand. It was better being stuck alone, to be with myself, without contact with anyone outside, and to reflect on what it meant, and realize how little we controlled our lives.
Niranjan Bhagat wrote a poem in Gujarati, called Aquarium, in which he noted how the fish travelled miles inside the aquarium and reached nowhere, a bit like human beings do, thinking they had travelled far, but hadn’t really moved. T.S. Eliot reflected on that restless energy:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
In the plane, I had the best glass of chilled sparkling water ever.
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First Published: Fri, Jan 04 2013. 05 21 PM IST