I wonder if anyone remembers what it was like before Sam Pitroda brought magic to us and connected all of India including our villages to an electronic network of telephones that actually functioned.
I mention it because the sight of a telephone kiosk gathering dust in a railway station brought back memories of the heavy black instrument of my youth.
The arrival of such a telephone in one’s house was a matter of some importance. The black (and later red or green or cream-coloured) messenger was ceremoniously installed in a prominent part of the house so that everyone could reach it as soon as it began to trill.
Quite often it would ring loudly just once and go dead for the next few hours. All the phones of course sounded the same unlike the ringtones of today’s mobile phones. Not every phone functioned smoothly and sometimes one went to a neighbour to find out if his machine was working better than one’s own. “Out of order” was as frequently heard as “The train is late” or “There was no electricity the whole of last night.”
I sometimes think that those black phones were sent to us to tutor us in patience and humility. Just when there was an emergency it would squeak into silence or send out a pleasant burring sound indicating that it was not going to cooperate. What would today’s mobile users know of the agonies of booking a ‘trunk’ call (‘long distance’ being the other term for it)? It could either be an ordinary call or a “lightning” call which meant that the all-powerful controller at the “exchange” would connect you within minutes to the number you wished to reach. Of course one simultaneously had to pray that the instrument at the other end was working. If there were parallel “extension” phones one had to ward off mischievous siblings before settling down to a 20-minute chat with a school friend.
International calls were nearly as fatiguing as international flights. You yelled and wait a few seconds for your voice to reach the other party while simultaneously listening to the ghost of your own voice coming back to you.
Equally memorable were the door-stopping telephone directories that came with every connection. Not only were the advertisements a study in sociology but details of who lived in what part of town were also meticulously laid out with no thought of what would today be a ‘security’ breach!