Friday, 27 July 2012

Telephone Diaries

Everyone absolutely insisted that I should get myself a mobile phone. Some were simply incredulous - “What? No cell phone yet!” they exclaimed. The expression in their eyes revealed - sympathy and surprise. Sympathy - for not-so-old-a-person gone nuts! And surprise - at meeting someone from an alien world. Even service providers on the internet insist on a mobile phone number to register and log on. What cheek!

My recent stint in the Sundarbans changed all that. Shohini, our daughter gave me her old mobile phone so that I could keep in touch from that God forsaken place.

Actually, I do come from a time when a phone was not a gizmo that enhanced one’s status, a hi-fi music system and a good turntable was (a turntable is a record player). I did business as a designer without a phone. I employed messengers. Calcutta Telephone’s loss contributed towards generating employment in the private sector - and was far more efficient, which in fact I found out much later when I got my first phone connection. The stupid contraption sat there most of the time: DEAD!

The first phone that I ever saw and remember was when I was about 4 years old and was living in a joint family on Lake Road (miraculously that house still stands). This phone was a black heavy thing with no dial! You had to pick up the phone and tap the cradle a few times – almost like knocking on one’s door to attract attention. That was actually what the tapping was meant for. So a lady at the other end would respond, “Operator speaking. May I help you?” or at least that is what they were trained to say. The usual response would be a tired, “Hna number bolun” (yes, tell me the number). So you told her the number you wanted and she would connect you and order, “Neen, kotha bolun” (now speak here).

As I traveled a lot as a designer, in what I look back as my “salad days”- I had to keep in touch with Smriti. She would reach a friend’s house and wait for my call! I would ask the operator at the other end to book me a “fixed time call!” There were many instances that this connection never came about. The lines were either too busy or the operator must have goofed up. Sometimes when we did get connected and had just started to talk, a third voice would butt in and generally try to annoy us. This phenomenon was known as “cross-connection!”

At that time it was: Public Sector Monopolies Zindabad!

However, phones then were not intelligent. They had no knack for numbers unlike phones of today. The telephone company provided a voluminous tome called the “Calcutta Telephone Directory.” It was held in high regard by some and in their homes this book adequately made up for the lack of any other book. There were other uses for it too - it was very handy as a door stopper.

The Calcutta Telephone Directory was supposed to be updated annually, but that hardly ever happened. This created a lot of confusion as the company kept on bifurcating and re-bifurcating its’ local exchanges resulting in frequently changing phone numbers. This volume served every purpose other than finding a phone number. Even if you were lucky to find a name the number was wrong and vice versa. So, private hand written indexes had to be maintained. One had to jot down phone numbers in a little book called the “telephone diary.” I have one too many. I am sure many of you still do. Browsing through one of them I realized how much it concealed within its slim contours - and what they revealed were just not names and numbers!

Whoever invented the phone diary must have been a genius!

Just the other day, I was exchanging phone numbers with someone and realized that the cell phone memory would treat this entry as any other and dutifully arrange it alphabetically. I told this person that I still go home and write down a new number in my little telephone diary.  The person looked surprised. I said that I don’t have to worry about lost phone numbers when you lose a cell phone. I don’t have to email people with request to SMS me their numbers to my new phone or send out messages to every one on Facebook. Apart from that every entry has a story to tell! The puzzled expression on that persons face read like “man, you are daft!”

It was a seven digit number and read the notification!
My first telephone index was begun around 1988. We had just moved into 135 Sarat Bose Road (earlier known as Lansdowne Road) the previous year. This was our first phone. First phone? You may ask. Yes, you had to wait for years to get connected by Calcutta Telephones. Finally we paid a premium of 15 thousand rupees for a “Tatkal” connection.

We wanted an old phone with a dial, but those had just gone out of fashion. So, the one in vogue – a touch button design, came home. It was called “Priyadarshini” – named after Indira Gandhi, obviously by eager to please bureaucrats. This telephone however fell much short of her good looks and was definitely one of the ugliest contraptions ever designed.

I did not maintain multiple phone diaries all at the same time. A second and a third and a fourth was necessitated as the S pages got filled up first. I never imagined that I knew so many people whose names started with S. Soon after that, the A page filled up too and then the P and R pages.

There was one name each in Y and Z. There were none in F, Q, W and X! I never knew Wasim Akram or Kapoor personally! The lone entries in Y and Z were Yasin Khan and Z.A. Mallick. Both Islamic names and if I had known Wasim it would have been a trio of Islamic names. It would have been great if I knew people with names like Faroukh and Qureshi, my phone diary would not have had redundant pages. I can imagine that Wasim or Akram or Zulfikar or Qureshi would have started a second diary when their W, Y and Z pages filled up.

Do you know of anyone whose name starts with X? Other than “Xerxes the Great” I knew a senior student in the Government Art College in Calcutta. I knew him as Kshitishda - Kshitish Joshi. He later became a photographer and I bumped into him many years later. He handed me a calling card that spelt his name with an X – Xitij Joshi, it read!

To be continued...


  1. Wonderful read. Waiting for more :)

  2. me too - from designer you could now contemplate becoming a writer :-)

    1. Why can't I be a part-timer and do everything? :)

  3. Great start to your new blog! Will follow.

  4. Great begenning to a long awaited page abhida. Tomar telephone diary-r kollyaney kar-kar sheikey chirbey tai bhabchi.... . Remember the prank of 'Telephone Shraddya' years back where someone had actually garlanded a black telephone, like the one up there, mockingly hallowed the place with white linen and invited people over to a vegetarian meal. Your frustration with dead telephone lines reminded me of the incident. So, let us praise 'Joy, Telephone Babajir Joy'.

  5. 15000 rupees for a phone connection? A cell phone these days comes for less than a 1000 bucks along with a connection.
    I remember one puja...when someone kept on calling me every 3 minutes and asking .."kothay?'
    Not much difference between a dog and me really, except that the leash around my neck is attached by sophisticated mumbo jumbo waves and occasionally doubles into a radio.
    The cell phone would have done Bentham's Panopticon proud.

    1. 15,000.00 Rupees was for a "Tatkal" connection. You could get one for 1,000 too, but that was a long-long-long wait!

  6. khub bhalo laglo porey..enchanting abhijit da....

  7. what an exceptionally good read Abhi Kaka! and i agree, you can be an artist, designer and writer all rolled into one! Who's to stop you? :)

    I love the part about "cross-connection"! I would also write down phone numbers in a diary. And strangely enough those are numbers i still recall and remember. Now if my phone dies and i have to call someone, i am stranded!

    Looking forward to more vivid accounts :)

  8. The beginning ..had read but not commented. Been pretty long.