Early Telephone Conversations

An intriguing anecdote. That there was actually a World Telecommunication Day was interesting as I have fond memories of the primitive telephone machines when I was barely a few feet tall. 

My father said that when he was growing up,  it took a year to get a phone after registration and there were only a number of telephone lines . That too, only a few could afford. In Pilani, the huge havelis of Birla and Saraogi had a telephone line each. The telephone numbers were of four digits only. A funnel-like instrument was put to the ear to listen to a person and one spoke through another contraption that looked like a glass.

My father continues with his narration…..Whenever the telephone rang, there was competition to pick up the phone. Everyone was eager to pick it up. And along with calls from friends and relatives there were innumerable wrong numbers as well. Today, he is amazed that even with having to dial only four digits, people could still manage to dial wrong numbers. A routine wrong number was for the BITS, Pilani, whose number differed only by one digit. Dad says that he is sure that the staff at the BITS must have been as exasperated as the havelians.

The telephone connection in India had a flavour entirely of its own. Even if the telephone line belonged to someone else, the community regarded it as communal property and had an affectionate relationship with it. The neighbour’s telephone number was unabashedly shared by the whole neighbourhood and calls could come at any time requesting you to inform someone who lived at the end of the road. You of course were required to chat warmly with whoever had rung before telling them to ring 15 minutes later while you went and fetched your neighbour. After the neighbour finished their call, in everyone’s presence (this was before the age of personal space) the topic of the neighbour’s telephone conversation would be open for general debate and after it had been discussed threadbare, the neighbour would take their leave.

We moved to Pilani just before my birth, but my dad had to leave for Bombay where we were settled and he worked. My dad would call us up at Saraogion ki haveli. He would call back in 15 minutes while one of the Saraogis or their handyman came to call my mother. I would accompany her. A tough-looking Saraogan sat on a high throne-like pata, chewing supari and pan with a sarouta permanently in her hand. I remember being afraid of her. Zero privacy for a phone call. 

Thinking of my parents’ experience with the Indian phone connection reminded me of my own unique primitive experience with the French connection. I had joined Alliance Francaise to learn French and was getting quite good at it too. Any given opportunity and I would use French even on a non-English-speaking person in India for whom French was not even an option. I remember one sweeper guy telling me, “Didi, your English damn good.” I replied, “oh oh, it’s not the rough English, but the soft French, and I started teaching him words – merci, beaucoup, parlez vouz, je m’applle Bansi, je suis sweeper (can you believe it? 😬) and so on. 

I would call up my French school in presence of all my friends (chose no privacy) to enquire aimless things, just to show off my French. If the effeminate French receptionist at the other end enquired something, I’d have to switch to English, because he spoke the authentic French that’s spoken in France, not my kind of stilted French conversation that completely lacked the élan, the savoir faire. With the receptionist a l’Alliance Francaise, any deeper queries on the phone led to a quick, “Je parle Français mais un peu” and an even hastier “Au revoir”!But no French conversation could compare with the joie de vivre of our rustic telephone experience in India of my growing up days.

We will talk about mobile phones in the same manner one day. But the difference would be… “Only privacy. Zero community spirit.”


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