The first hoax phone call happily coincides with the first phone call. On March 10, 1876, Alexander ‘Hello?’ Graham Bell spoke into a transmitter the rather dull sentence, “Mr Watson, come here. I want to see you.” Well, Bell’s assistant Thomas Watson knew that it was his boss on the line from the next room. But what he didn’t know was that Bell didn’t want to see him at all, but just test the invention that would ultimately plague morons and smart people alike for the rest of eternity. The celebrations that followed may have wiped out Watson’s humiliation at being made a fool. But in a strict sense, he was the first victim of a hoax call.
Last week, someone rustled up a terribly accurate Bengali accent and pretended to be Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee on the line. The recipient of the call was none other than President Asif Ali Zardari, Pakistan’s most public non-State actor.
Pakistan Minister for Information and Broadcasting Sherry Rehman insisted that it was impossible for any call to come through to the president without a “multiple caller identity verification”. And this contraption showed that the call was
made from “a verified official phone number of the Indian Ministry of External Affairs”. How’s that for clinching evidence.
Mukherjee, enraged that it is so easy to mimic his accent, insisted that this was Zardari’s nasty, low-down attempt to divert attention from the fact that India had been attacked last month by elements from Pakistan. The rest of us must have wondered how close some guy (Minister of State Anand Sharma, perhaps?), substituting his ‘s’s for ‘sh’s and ‘v’s for ‘bh’s, came to pushing the Pakistani establishment into pushing a red button marked ‘By the whiskers of Kurvi-Tasch, let’s nuke ’em!’
But hang on. We on this side of the Jhelum think that it was a hoax that the Pakistanis were stupid enough to fall for. But what if it wasn’t a hoax? With everybody including Ian Chappell and the ghost of Douglas Jardine talking of
‘unconventional’ methods that can be used against Pakistan, Mukherjee, a shmart cookie if there ees owan, may have been
conducting India’s own ‘We’re also a victim of hoaxes-we have no control over our crank-callers’ operation.
Personally speaking, I’ve been both a perpetrator as well as a victim of hoax calls. One memorable one had me calling up a colleague who had just returned from Ladakh after covering a monsoon deluge there. Putting out my best impersonation of a Guardian correspondent (‘I say old chap...’ minus the ‘I say old chap...’), I asked him whether I could cross-check some facts before I despatched my report to London. That phone call lasted some 20 minutes. It included muffled laughter from my end.
Then there was a time when I received a call from someone who insisted that he was Noel Gallagher from the British band Oasis. I had been the first one in the country to write a full-fledged feature on the ‘watch-out-for-this-group’s’ breakthrough album, (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? Knowing my friends, I was convinced that it was someone taking the piss. The voice at the other end kept insisting that he was Noel and wanted to thank me for the write-up. I must have hurled some Bengali swear words before banging the phone down. Days later, some PR chap from Sony asked me whether someone from the band called me up. I smelt a long chain of conspiracy and kept quiet. Till this day, I don’t know whether...
I wonder whether Zardari will forever keep wondering too whether...
But better to mistake a genuine call for a hoax than to get duped by the Unreal McCoy. When Canadian comedian Marc Antoine Audette convinced Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin that he was French President Nicolas Sarkozy (“Ai jhust love keelling those aneemahls. Mmm, mmm, taik awaee laif, that ees so fahn,”), it marked the end of a possible career. So when you call me and get a reply, “I’m afraid Mr Hazra is not in his office. Can I take a message?” please banish the thought that I might be cooking up a voice. I’m just protecting myself from ridicule.