When we were children, the telephone was an instrument, black and heavy, one could even use the receiver as a dumbbell because the telephone lines were not working most of the time anyway…. We looked at it with respect, and when it rang we all ran to it in the hope that it would be for us. My dad hated the phone. He insisted it was an instrument to communicate, usually matters of extreme urgency and could not tolerate anyone talking on it for longer than it took to say three sentences. As I grew up and my school friends started calling, I always had lame excuses like homework and syllabus to blame it on. Not that it worked…if I was ever heard giggling on the phone, I was met with a frown. Any conversation longer than 10 seconds made the frown lines deeper…and if, God forbid, any BOY called…ah…that was like the ultimate sin! I had these boys calling for me sometimes, local friends, but my dad never could fathom why. Usually he’d tell them very rudely that I was indisposed and after each such call I was given a lecture on the fact that all boys are the same and they have only one motive etc etc etc This held true even of my male cousins who did not identify themselves between the two “hellos”. So they took to stuttering a wrong number whenever my dad picked up the phone, or, worse still, voicelessly hung up! As a result of all this, I learnt to keep my phone conversations short, crisp and non-descriptive. I was rude even, anyone waxing eloquent on the other end of the line would be told I’d talk later in school the next day or some such shit and the matter would end there. But there were also these surreptitious phone calls to and from “boyfriends” late in the night after the house was sleeping…. I remember sneaking around in the dark in my dad’s study….trying in vain to silence the loud whirr of the dialer and hope that when I picked up the receiver or set it down, it would not “tingggg” loud enough to wake my father.
In college, there was a phone booth near the college gate. Not habituated to making phone calls, I relied on the Indian Postal System to get my thoughts across, albeit late. We were taught to make calls only in case of extremely extreme urgency and nothing really came close. The first phone message I received was after two years at college, made at Vani’s house, (which Vani drove all the way from Camp to Aundh in the driving rain to tell me), and it told me to be at Nanavati hospital ASAP to be near my father who was having an operation. I took the train that night….a complete stranger in a strange city and found my way to his side. My Ma had stayed behind in the US to be with my sis. The relatives who had “escorted” dad to Bombay from Calcutta were “in tension” and disappeared to another relative’s house In Borivilli or Kandivilli or some shitsville. So I spent the next six weeks by his side….going back to Pune to get clothes and stuff once or twice, I don’t remember exactly….and the night before his operation was the last proper conversation we had. After that he could never speak properly again and stilted phrases and sign language had to suffice for the deep voice I still hear in the stillness….The hospital authorities and the doctors were most kind. I ate, slept and lived at Nanavati. I became part of the furniture even in the ICU….the canteen guys and I knew each other by first name. And late in the night, sitting alone and crying over a cup of coffee and a Stephen King, my life seemed to be at a standstill. But life goes on…..one night I was suddenly woken up from my slumber on the couch in dad’s room because he had tried to get out of bed and broken the IV drip bottle…he wanted to go home. So over the next few days, arrangements were made, my mother finally deigned to return from the US and Baba was shifted to a hospital in Calcutta. The vanishing relatives reappeared and nodded when the doctors explained everything…..the mistake I made was that I did not fly to Calcutta with Baba as I thought mom was home and would handle things now. How could I imagine that those vanishing relatives had not understood a word of what the doctor had said and could not communicate anything to my mother……I blamed myself when I got my mother’s letter…and that was the first time I called home. This was certainly an emergency. It was one of the longest conversations I have had with my mother and by the end of it all we were both in tears…Baba would have so disapproved, I thought as I pretended it was just dust in my eye for the benefit of the phone booth guys….
After dad passed away I called home twice…once when I heard my grandmother had passed away and then a month later when my grandfather followed her.
Then my five years in college were up, I came home with the (erroneous) belief that I was needed here. The phone was now a slim line push button affair and I could make as many calls as I wanted and speak for as long as I liked. But I didn’t really care to. Oh it was nice to hear from friends and it was good to talk but my conversation was limited….and even curt. When my husband was courting me we used to talk all hours on the phone. He would call after I got home from work at about 1 am and we’d talk till the wee-er hours…..even then I realized that he did most of the talking…so much to his disgust I used to call him All India Radio….switch it on and there it goes…..
I always had this phone phobia ….or communication problem when I came to phone conversations…after I was married , my in laws often wondered why I did not call or speak on the phone. So when they went to Hyderabad and then Delhi, I took to writing to them…. Crazy letters that spoke of everything but said nothing, I realized I am much better with the written word than the spoken one! Even now I am haunted by the phone, each time it rings, I often hang up promising to call back and hope to meet the person in person before that call becomes overdue….I hate it when a client goes on rattling in obvious distress about lengthy domestic issues and wish they would just take an appointment and rant in front of me……when I have time….(one thing I really crave.) And now phones come in all shapes and sizes, they can do everything but make dinner and argue my cases for me in court. I remember the first cell phone I had, it was heavy and it resembled a brick. I used to call it my Nokia ad…once when Isha was just over a year old and could barely stand, she threw it from our 3rd floor apartment to the pavement below…..It was in pieces, I ran and collected them all and lo and behold when I put it together ( I needed the help of a rubber band)…it worked!!!!!!
Anyway now my latest gadget is the Blackberry storm…it’s nice and I can see all the emails I do not want to see when I do not want to see them! And one touch opens up the internet and facebook and helps me pass a lot of time when I really should be finishing that draft…(like now!!) but I still get tongue tied on the phone. I love it when old friends or friends or relatives I have been dying to meet or talk to call…I want to speak my heart out, tell them of all that’s been happening in my life and share a slice of theirs….I want to tell them I love them and they are precious in my life and I miss them and I am so happy and blessed that they are there and life’s too short to not say these things…
But all I can manage is a weak “okay,ya….” when I am asked, “how’s life?”
My silence says the rest.