"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Tales From India–The Chest

The only good thing to come out of my field trip with Mickey Brito was an antique sea chest I had bought from a junk dealer friend of his in Nasik. It was early 19th century Gujarati, built of solid oak and fitted with iron hasps, bolts, and chains. It sounded like a medieval dungeon every time I opened it. It was reinforced with studded oak braces, and was a foot-and-a-half thick on all six sides. It was as big as a closet and weighed over 3000 lbs. It was a magnificent piece which had been built to withstand every possible hazard except sinking, and even then, it would have remained intact at the bottom of the Arabian Sea for a century.

It had been carried to my Bombay apartment by coolie-cart and waited in the alley by the service entrance. The wheels of the cart were splayed at an exaggerated angle, and the broken rods that had held the wheels to the frame of the cart dangled to the ground.
Despite my concerns over the ability of the elevator to handle anything like this load and despite the elevator warning that it would hold no more than than 8 passengers, or approximately 1000 lbs., the coolie boss insisted that it would work - it had to work he said, because there was no way he and his men could possibly haul the chest up sixteen flights of stairs. His job was at stake, he said. He had contracted with the shipper, and if the chest were not delivered, he would not be paid.

So six coolies grappled and fought with the chest, each trying to get a hold of a corner, groaning, straining, struggling to lift the massive thing off the cart. It had been lifted into position by a crane at the port, the boss said, and he had no idea how much it weighed. Six men was obviously not enough. They fought for leverage, for a foothold amidst the garbage, dishwater, and shit that had accumulated in the alley, thrown there by the cooks and servants of the over 100 families who lived in the building. There was no waste removal service as such in Bombay in those days. You just tossed everything over the side and let the human scavengers, cows, dogs, rats, crows, vultures, and finally roaches get rid of the mess. It worked quite well, this informal system, but the alley was always slick with slime and residue and it was almost impossible to get a footing.

To make matters worse, every few minutes a stream of water or garbage came flying down 15 stories and splattering on the pavement near the struggling coolies. They were like soldiers trying to push a howitzer into position while being shelled by the enemy. Just as the coolies managed to get a coordinated grip on the chest and began counting down to assure lifting in unison, down came a bucketful of mango pulp and banana skins. The coolies were now sweating like galley slaves, sinews bunched and stretched to the limit on their arms and legs, and their faces were contorted and grimacing.

Finally they managed to get the chest into the elevator. As it was placed carefully as possible and the full weight of it settled on the floor, the whole elevator sank a foot, then sprang back, and finally settled into a harmonic rocking. The roof of the elevator buckled where the cables above strained to hold the elevator car from plunging into the basement below. The cables groaned, and somewhere far above in the machinery housing at the top of the elevator shaft, came sounds of shearing metal and stripping gears. The roof of the elevator car pinged and banged as nuts and bolts pulled loose from the housing came sailing down the shaft.

“You better take it out”, I said.

“No, Sahib”, insisted the boss, his shirt soaked with sweat, and his face streaming. “It is most definitely possible. Tata lift is good lift”.

By this time a crowd of street urchins and servants had gathered around. The servants were giving advice, some saying the load would hold, others dramatically pointing downwards. The children laughed each time a bolt came loose and came ricocheting down 15 stories, banging and whining its way down the narrow shaft and finally slamming into the roof of the elevator with the force of a sledge hammer. Passengers waiting in the lobby for the lift began banging on the doors, hollering for us to release the elevator.

At last the button to the 15th floor was pushed, the doors shut, the elevator groaned and started to lift, and the coolies and I ran up to the lobby floor to get a second lift and to meet the chest when it arrived at the top. The two lifts went up together, and the noise in the shaft was incredible. The cables stretched and creaked like rigging on a four-master in a gale. The winch, floors above, screeched as the cable gained and lost traction. The machine engine in the rooftop housing thudded and banged up and down on its foundation, and a smell of hot grease began to fill the car. A sound like bowling balls being dumped on the roof and rolling across the terrace thundered down the elevator shaft.

Surprisingly, the chest made it to the 15th floor, and the process was reversed – fighting for handholds and footholds, the coolies bent and strained, and finally set the chest on its end on the 15th floor landing.  I told them they would have to carry the chest one more floor up to the penthouse.  They mopped their streaming faces and panted for breath.

“Sahib”, said the boss. “Sahib please take out from inside of chest what is making it so heavy”.

“There is nothing inside the chest”, I said. “The chest itself is heavy”.

First one coolie then the next sat down on the stairs leading to the penthouse. The last lash of a thousand in the galley of the trireme had fallen. Nothing in the chest. Empty. They had hauled an old, heavy, worthless piece of shit up 15 floors, and there was nothing in it. Americans were far dumber than they ever, ever thought, and that was saying something.

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