Antique locks are key to a new mind-set

Apart from the friendly neighborhood burglar, it is the museum curator who knows most about locks and keys. In the seven years that I've held custody of precious artworks, I have handled locks of all characters and strengths. Of course, the carrying of sharp, jagged keys means that I have endured many torn pockets along the way.

On a normal day I set out to work at the museum armed with a 2-1/2-inch-long brass master key that pries open a heavy seven-lever lock on the door of the reserve room. Once inside, I confront seven more locks hanging upon cabinets and cupboards. The locks are of assorted shapes, sizes, and antiquities. A few of them are old and exotic enough to qualify as museum pieces in their own right.

So when a number of old locks were phased out recently, I did not send them to be sold for scrap. My curator's instinct bade me to hold on to the old locks for future generations to see. I now have a motley collection of locks. I often take the mechanisms out in order to oil their innards.

Spread out on a worktable, the antiquated locks seem like so many small denizens of a metallic world. One is designed to completely detach from a U-shaped hinge. Another has the appearance of an iron ball smoothed and darkened by many hands.

A few of the contraptions, particularly those with little sliding metal strips covering their keyholes, bring back memories of my ancestral home in a north Indian village. I am reminded of thick wooden doors, iron shackles, and locks with shuttered keyholes.

The way these old locks work involve deep mysteries. My staff would set about opening showcases with an attitude bordering on reverence. It was never taken for granted that the locks would release their grip at the first turn of a key. If such a happy event did come about, it was sometimes attributed to the "generosity" of the lock. And when the levers refused to move, the cause might be vested in the "stubbornness" of the fastener.

Apparently this irrational concept is not uncommon in professional circles here. Recently I read about a motorcycle racing champion who selects his bikes by "mood" and "feel" rather than on the basis of specific performance parameters.

I could, of course, brush aside such sensibilities as deriving from superstitious mind-sets. I could call my staff a gullible lot. The old locks are nothing but near-defunct mechanisms, and this fact explains their erratic behavior. The point, however, is different. I am feeling drawn to the belief my attendants have in their "illogical" perception.

I wonder: Is the "feel" of a situation more real than its outward logic? I am now more inclined to think so. And this newfound outlook of mine goes right down the line, to the venerable objects on my table, ready to open up the precious stuff in return for a little kindness.

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