I grew up during a time when we didn’t have internet, and we actually had to wait for 7- 10 years to get a phone connection at home.
The “landline”/ phone and thick directory were usually delivered months in advance of the connection actually being activated, and we continued to clean that dead phone every day with pride, anticipation and a feeling that we’ve finally made it in life.
I still remember my mom sitting at the dining table, spending hours, flipping through the phone directory looking for “contacts”, which she would mark with a ball-point pen- a reminder of calls that needed to be made once the phone was actually activated. My dad too spent many a weekend afternoon, looking at the yellow pages for automobile parts shops, etc. We kids didn’t have too much browsing to do because our friends circle lived within 100 meters of our home.
Closer to the activation date, the “line man” came with a tester peeping out of his pocket, parked his cycle in front of our house, pulled out a connection confirmation list and sadistically just fixed the junction box and left, without actually activating anything.
We spent the next few days randomly picking up the receiver over 10 times a day, in hopes that we would hear the freaking, “ring tone”, and arguing between us over the placement of the phone in the living room.
It had to be at a prominent place in the living room that required a lot of furniture shifting and brought into play my dads interior decoration skills, ensuring all the visitors could admire it, and we could run without tripping over the wire, to make sure we picked it up “before the 3rd ring”.
For a long period before that phone entered our living room, the only option we had to communicate in an emergency situation, required us to take a 20 minute bus ride to the general post office, 10 kilometres away, wait in line at midnight, when the charges were the lowest and send a telegram.
You paid by the word, so you had to communicate like you were “tweeting” bad news. “Thatha passed away” (hmmm. Cant we just use “died” and save some money?). “Funeral tomorrow.”.
Receiving telegrams was a totally different ball game too. Not sure why but most telegrams were delivered at night (probably because someone else was also saving cash).
You were most probably in deep sleep, when you hear your dog growl, and then the sound of someone clicking the stand of a cycle in your garden.. then you heard someone stub his toe on the flower pot near the entrance, and curse in Tamil, before dragging a snapped “chappal” onto the front door steps and start groping the wall in the dark, trying to find your doorbell. Finally a voice in the darkness goes- “Saar. telegram”.
That’s it- the dog jumps into “beast” mode, all the lights in the house would turn on at the same time, my dad would spring out of bed, like an athlete on steroids, and catch the postman with a brown checked shawl around his head, making an entry in the register with a torchlight.
The rest of the night was all about dunking endless cups of strong chai and talking about the departed.
The “STD booths”, (no. It’s not what you’re thinking) came in a bit later, and around the same time we saw, “xerox/ fax” shops popping up in the neighbourhood. It was usually manned by a person with special needs, who had bribed his way into a government job. The booth was a place you went to, when we had to deliver well-curated, intercity or overseas calls at the top of our voices and at a high speed. Given the high cost of ISD calls, these were reserved for extraordinary circumstances only- like wanting to reconfirm the flight details of a relative landing a month from now.
If it was bad news that had to be passed on to family members within the city limits, we had designated family members who were given the task- usually the most sad-faced, non-controversial, religious and boring relative, who owned a bike, was assigned the task.
As soon as you saw this “angel of death”… this “harbinger of bad news” as it were, outside your house, you went “ohOH”, and the faces of all the old people in your family tree started flashing in your mind, like a slot machine- “oh gawd. who’s it going to be THIS time?”
Anyway this guy usually came across as too shy to even ring the bell, or he was too drunk. Either ways he was invariable in a confused state of mind, and standing outside our next door neighbours door, trying to explain the physical descriptions of all the members in our family – providing them with all our “pet names” (dippy? Anil? Sunil?) we were assigned within the family. Once we “uncle” him in, he walks slowly into the house, asks for “dad or mom” and a glass of water. He was usually upgraded to a mandatory cup of lukewarm, over-sweet tea and glucose biscuits, which he nibbles at, while patting our head with sadness.
The “elders” (usually my dad in front , with my mom nervously hiding behind him) walk in, and before my dad could make a humorous, inappropriate remark, to start off proceedings, my mom would jump out, with outstretched arms, “yaaru? Yaaru?”
And then all hell usually broke loose, with a lot of crying. Coffee gets neglected along with the half-eaten Glucose biscuit, which our dogs would start showing interest in. If there were any of our friends playing caroms in our room- they started hugging the walls like a swat team on an episode of “Cops”, and start slowly slipping out of the house in stealth-mode. Funeral details are shared and all our evening plans went for a toss.
These days the “drama” in communication seems to have been lost for ever. I miss the emotional “slow burn”, when emoticons and smiley faces were actual people. Not for me the real-time, updates by over enthusiastic “maamis” in the family whatsapp group, that elbow “Thathas” spirit trying to get past the rooftop on the ether highway.