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Phoney days!

Why we shouldn't sulk about mobiles. Rajbir Deswal writes.

india Updated: Sep 21, 2011 21:37 IST

No, it wasn't like it is today when you dial a number and get the person on the line. You had to call up 'the exchange' those days. Not the bourses where stocks and shares go up and down, but the telephone exchange.

"Hello? Exchange? Please give me 272." There was a precise number you asked the operator to connect you to. If he or she was in a pleasant mood, the person would ask, "Urgent or ordinary?" According to your response, you would be asked to hold the line. Once on the line, in the middle of a conversation, the operator's voice would butt in: "Three minutes over!" To which your response, if you wanted to continue chatting, would be: "Please extend the time." It was not a statement; it was a submission. "Khatam karo jee!" the operator would again caution you. And before you could wind up your tete-a-tete, you would hear the 'toon-toon-toon' sound of a 'disconnection'.

The dial tone also confirmed that the phone had a beating heart. Those days the phone rang with only one tune: 'Tarran-tarran". You also couldn't adjust the volume of your phone. These were also the days when you wouldn't be bothered by a phone ringing away with no one picking it up on the other side. It was the operator and the operator alone who had the right to listen in and tell you that nobody was picking up the phone.

If you had to talk to someone living in another town, you needed to book a 'trunk call'. This system did not, as many callers thought, refer to any elephant metaphor but was analogous to a tree trunk and its many branches. Initially, you would have to walk up to the telephone exchange or the post office to book a trunk call. The wait there could be anything up to three to four hours. An international call sometimes took two to three days. Booking a trunk call over the phone came later.

The real trauma a phone-owner experienced was when he was told to 'please' call so-and-so neighbour as "it was an emergency". Calling the neighbour, listening to him talk (who, at times, betrayed no expressions that may have pointed to any 'emergency'), and offering a cup of tea after the call was done were collateral damage that came with having a telephone in the house. What made matters worse was the dreaded request: "Could I make a call?" Any payment in money or kind was seldom made.

Cross-connections provided the comical interludes. But they were a headache when one was talking about a serious matter - like an illness, or a recipe, or sweet nothings. People today talk about the 2G scam and spam text messages in this age of mobile phones. I say much better these than those hoary days when telephony itself was a giant scam.

Rajibir Deswal is a Delhi-based writer

The views expressed by the author are personal