Saturday, February 27, 2010

Telephone Tales

It has been an interesting 60 years. Thinking about telephones and telephony, that is.

For the first 7 years of my school, up to 1961, we did not have a telephone at home in Pune. It was not that it was expensive, but it was simply not available to everyone. There were waiting lists.

I came home one afternoon while in eight grade, to see a black rotary instrument sitting in the living room. Turned out, that many families we knew, also got these telephones on the same day. And almost immediately, the misuse began. History homework notes were exchanged in detail and dictated over the phone, arithmetic homework was checked assiduously, till a maternal and paternal outrage immediately put a stop to it. One doesn't remember having too much casual talk with friends over it, and it was used sparingly, like to contact the doctor, or the school etc. Overseas calls, then involved booking a call, and for some reason, understanding the accent of the overseas operator gave us a big high, and we would shout at the top of our voices when the connection happened, as if the voice needed to carry over the 12,000 miles ...

We soon went through a period up to , say mid eighties, when getting a phone installed was such a huge achievement. Particularly in Mumbai where I was living then. Keeping it working was even more of one. It was controlled by a public sector set up, and was basically a sellers market, where a lot more (in terms of surreptitious telephone services) was sold, besides telephone connections. Telephone repair mechanics ruled supreme, and one always admired folks working with the telephone department.

For many years I had a file of telephone complaints correspondence, probably classifying me persona non grata , with the fellows, who provided quick undocumented telephone repairs with a smile, while pocketing a disproportionately huge compulsory tip. Telephone wires still stretched through poles and trees, and there were several occasions, when I had to climb on the sloping roof of our apartment complex, to co-operate and verbally communicate with a guy on top of a pole, as he attempted to set things right.

We were the only folks in the building having a telephone, and it was often used as a community thing during some emergency time. One of our neighbors, had just had a prostate operation , and the histopathological exam of the excised sample, was indicating some not-so-nice , yet doubtful conclusions. The agitated lady came down to our house that evening, with the urologists number, and explained. They needed to call and fix up an urgent appointment.

We called. The first call reached a wrong number. This happened again and again, despite slow, proper, dialling of the stuff. The same lady would come on at the other end. And she finally asked us what our problem was, once she surmised that we weren't children surreptitiously having fun by making prank calls. Possibly there was a connection snafu somewhere in the cables, which was directing these calls to her number (with a difference of one digit).

Turned out that she happened to know the urologist, who stayed nearby. She understood our plight, and offered to send her son over to find out an appointment for us the next day, and asked us to call back in half a hour. We did. The urologist remembered this patient and the urgency and gave an appointment the next day. The unknown lady was profusely thanked by us. And to this day we don't know her name or where she stayed.....

Those were the old days. And we then had such "quality" wrong numbers and cross connections!

Today, with the advent of cell phones, and the communication sector opened up to private participation, the telephone has become a toy. Wires on landlines have gone underground, it is no longer attractive to be a telephone mechanic, and I don't climb on sloped terraces anymore, to shout at the mechanic on the telephone pole. Though, one, of course, does see random ditches being dug in the midst of heavy traffic, by the telephone people, to correct, what they call, cable faults.

But in today's wireless world, there are batteries of semi-trained young people sitting with lists and calling unknown people from there, to sell things.

Blue Chip investments, Prudential insurances, credit cards and debit cards from assorted fancy banks, and personal loans.

One person even called up to say that I would get a free fully paid trip for two, at some five star resort if I answered 4 questions, pertaining to the (India's) freedom struggle. I did. Successfully, and then was told to come to a vague place in Mumbai for a free dinner (for two), and a presentation, provided I brought my cheque book along. A friend got taken in by this and found out it was a timeshare scheme, where they closed the office and vanished into thin air after a few months.

There is another set up folks who call offering personal loans from various banks. The same banks, hold tight on rules, when you apply for a house loan or something and entangle you in paperwork. After once getting 8 calls in 2 days, something went like this :

"Good afternoon. I am calling from XXXXXXX bank. And we can offer you a personal loan " a male voice.

"But I don't need any loan right now. Besides who gave you my number? " Me.

"Ma'am. Just a few minutes. We have these very attractive schemes, personal loans up to 50,000. Cash."

" Look. Tell me if you need money. I will give you a personal loan." Me. With false bravado.

That bank probably struck me off their list.

The bank where I have been a customer for 35 years, recently made 9 phone calls to me. Different people asking the same question. Do I want a credit card ?(I already had one of theirs). To each one, I had to provide the same information from scratch. I finally sent them 10 identical emails saying the same thing. After which someone called to apologize.

But the worst thing to happen is this business of cellphone caller tunes and ring tones. Ages ago we only had the decent tring-tring.

Today, you are standing in a bus, crushed in the crowd, and something has just fallen down from your purse as you organize to buy a ticket. Someones phone rings and merrily plays the old favourite ,"Congratulations , and celebrations !"......

Then there is the guy who has just spat tobacco juice out from the window, and his phone rings and loudly plays "Sare jahan se Achha, Hindostan Hamara !".

Or there is this HUGE person, whose ring tone says something about "Pappu being unable to dance" (said with an expletive), which is supposed to be a popular song...... (I wouldn't even try dancing in the bus...)

There are folks who think nothing of playing emergency sirens, whistles, and shouts as ring tones.

But the concept of caller tunes is new. When you call someone, instead of the usual tone, you are compulsorily made to hear some stuff. Some have old film songs. Some have some patriotic music. Some have the latest hit in Hollywood and Bollywood. Some have religious prayers. I have even heard someone, who makes you listen to the typical concluding recitations done by priests during Hindu marriages, before he picks up the phone. I have heard baby laughs, cricket commentaries, and parodies of film villains.
My brain is clogged. I give up. I want the old days back again. When you had no choices and a simple standard ring. No sms's, no missed calls being used as tricks to indicate something, and no frequently changing phone schemes, while the phone company kind of bleeds you dry, slowly and steadily.

I think only the Almighty can help.

And so I have a caller tune which is an old Marathi movie song, a devotional song, and a favourite. And it beseeches the Lord saying, my body is the safe-locker, my faith is the fixed deposit, and please to open the doors of heaven, please to open the doors......(And all the while, at least in the movie, some thieves are busy trying to hack open some safe deposit vault...)

Click to listen


  1. Very nicely written. Related many of the incidents you've written with my childhood days. Even we didnt have phone at home, till I got to college, in spite of the fact, my dad was working for the telephones. Now, he has 3 phones, but dont know what to do - thats an entirely different story. :)

    Ringtones - certainly some are quite irritating !!! I hate the reverse music in cars being too noisy and out of context.

    I too want those quiet days where we are not bugged on all sides by different kinds of communication.

    Gud one !!!

  2. Haaa! The phone used as a public property....ask me about it. There was this one neighbour who used to get calls after 12 am or at odd hours like that from her relatives all the time during the week... and when they at last got a telephone, it was strictly private and locked at all times!!

    Oh! these ringtones, my bro has one for his messages, which sounds like a coin falling off the table on to the floor, and whenever it rings, one unknowingly looks down for the falled coin:) and the hello tunes, I've asked my cabmates to keep something for me, so that I will be pulling my hair off during the entire of the day looking for another good tune to occupy my thoughts!

    Between, need ur email id mine's pinashpinash@gmail, and I just loved ur verses, putting it up with the pic. Thanks UK

    Good Day

  3. "Dehachi Tijori.." Some find it old-fashioned, but this is a favourite song of mine. I enjoyed the movie, too!

    I ,too, find the caller tunes irritating. The music is usually far too loud. And why do they assume that we need to be entertained during the few seconds wait?

  4. Mobile phones have ushered in a completely new cultural revolution of sorts. Havent they ?

    Starting with sirens, wails and stupid tunes which state " Excuse me Boss, you have a text message' !

    Ofcourse, the olden days didnt have the concept of text messages. Nor did they have any idea of murder of the English language with so called 'SMS' lingo ! Pls Xcus da angr !

    on another note, the fibre of folks who anywhich was want to help, even if it was a wrong number like the lady you mention...well, that fibre is wearing thin.

    This post brought many memories !!

  5. i too want the old days back when the t'phone was respedted and used only as a neessity.gen X is going to skin me alive for saying this but we have boy friends calling up their GFs in the middle of an examination (we know since mobile phones are either switched off or surrendered as per rules) and the BF suddenly becomes a brother and her mother is seriously ill and in hospital.The girl couldn't switch off the phone naturally. Many of their parents don't even know that their daughters have mobile phones.i am fed up with such stories and would like to know how these BFs manage to pre pay for their own mobile and that of their GFs.Do you know?

  6. BTW congrats on being among the top 5 entries for the IWD contest.

  7. Our generation did see a lot of useful and useless technology. As you said, the phone was used only for necessary talk. When I set up home it was only after years, when we could afford the Rs 1000/- deposit that we finally applied for the phone. We got it a year later.
    I thought I was the only one without a caller tune. I do use the cell phone mainly for my morning alarm and have Vishnu Sarasanam as the tune. So MS Subbalakshmi's 'Om' generally lulls me out of deep slumber.

  8. Great post and ti shows how society has changed. Now people cannot get by without having a phone glued to their ears. I vote for the simple days of land line phones and a bit more space.

  9. As always, nice read :)

    The shouting loudly happens even today in case of long distance calls. :D

  10. I remember the rotary phones! Have to wait for each click of the round. I also remember how heavy the handle was and most likely my brother won't ever forget. (Mainly because the tiny dent on his forehead is because he tried the grab the phone out of my hand and someone landed on his head....)

    I recently posted on Facebook that I have a cell phone, but it's more like a paperweight in my purse. I keep it only for emergency uses. My family and friends know, too, if they call me while I'm driving, I'm not going to answer. I get too nervous. It amazes me how many people hold the phone and drive! Crazy!

    But yes, those tones are something else. Our customers do not turn off their cell phones when they fill out paperwork. Every now and then we hear some pretty stange stuff from the phone.

  11. And the picture in the header is way too familiar.:)
    Meeting the Boy's friends for the first time happened here.
    Meeting my blog friends for the first time also followed :)

  12. I loved every word of it. Incidently I had written something similar to this in my first ever blog post. I would love it ,if you find time to read this. It would matter a lot to me.
    the link is -

  13. Umsreflections Thank you.

    PNA Thank you. Yes, I have had my share of the neighbor teenager getting "urgent" calls on our phone.A "loaded" question from my ma-in-law to her, put a stop to that....:-)

    manjuSomeone needs to research caller tunes as a function of personality. I know lots of folks who get impatient listening to Dehachi Tijori on my phone....

    Kavi It is all about having "time". In the old days, folks had time to listen. And sometimes act and help. Today its all about symbolic tunes, attitudes, and a rush to get somewhere, so much so, that proper English is a difficult thing to type.

    HHG True. The cell phone stuff has spawned several innovative ways of cheating amongst young folks. We didnt really need that...

    Radha Yes, for some of us, having a wonderful caller tune (like some you mention) is a bonus, but the main thing is we are not given to permanent stuff attached to our ears....the young folks do that all the time....

    Lilly, Aleta Thank you.

    Kirti Thank you. And I would love to visit your site....will do so very soon. Just wondering why you call yourself a recluse housewife ?

    G Thats why they have speaker phones today. Shouting is out of fashion. :-)

    And about your meeting spot, come by next time you visit your sasar. Evenings around 6:30. you will see me with my walking friends, taking a chat break here, trying to solve the world's problems.

    P. S. Bring Nandini.

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