They were once an integral part of our world. Today, they’ve vanished. Never again will we make ‘lightning trunk calls’ to a distant relative or use a typewriter (and then swab white fluid on the paper because we made a mistake while typing). Nor are we likely to write long, rambling hand-written letters and then post them. But we can certainly look back in affection...
By hand, we mean. When did you last write a letter and send it in a stamped envelope by post? Can’t even remember, right? Hand-written letters, it seems, have the feel of mothballs. In India, a 2005-06 Union audit report by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India revealed that mail traffic declined by nearly 50 per cent between 2000-01 and 2005-06. It has further fallen since 2005-06. The report blames better modes of communication, especially advancements in the telecom sector, for this decline. Before ‘LOL’ and ‘I cld c u thre’ came into our lives, drafting, writing and waiting for letters was one of the few exciting things we could do in our free time.
With the slow death of hand-written letters, we will in one stroke lose an art, terms such as ‘pen pal,’ an important source of history and the fun of preserving memories in an old shoebox only to be rediscovered years later.
Manual alarm clocks
We all remember waking up to the piercing shriek of the alarm clock at some unearthly hour of the morning – a sound capable of waking the dead from their graves. You had to manually fix the time of the alarm, which meant straining your eyes to find the marks indicating minutes on the clock. Fixing the alarm for, say, 6:35 am was an almost impossible task. Digital alarm clocks and in-built alarm clocks in cell phones have made manual alarm clocks almost prehistoric. A study conducted by UK budget hotel chain Travelodge last year revealed that 71 per cent of respondents felt alarm clocks were obsolete. “The faithful bedside companion has been cast off in favour of the modern must-have, a mobile phone,” said the study. There is reason to believe that India too, with more than 360 million cell-phone users, has bid the manual alarm clock goodbye.
The TV antenna
For years the television antenna was a permanent fixture on our rooftops, bringing entertainment into our living rooms through Doordarshan (and, before 24-hour TV, occasionally serving as a clothesline). But even a slight breeze could disrupt reception – and if that happened during the weekly telecast of Ramayana and Mahabharata or a cricket match, it would be nothing short of a full-blown family crisis. One person would rush to the rooftop to fix the wayward antenna, another would be stationed on the ground and yet a third person would be posted in the house, next to the TV set. A three-way conversation (with everyone shouting all at once) would ensue: “Move it to your right. No, not so much! Just a bit. Ye-e-e-s, it’s back!” Three relieved people would rush back to park themselves in front of the set again.
With the arrival of cable television in the early Nineties, the TV antenna became almost redundant. The speed at which cable television overwhelmed our television sets was, well, overwhelming. In 1992 – the first year of cable television in India – the number of cable homes jumped from 400,000 to 1,200,000. By 1994, the number had risen to ten million. Satellite TV has made the dish antenna common. But the TV antenna, once an integral part of the Indian landscape, has disappeared from our rooftops and our lives.
They took annoyingly long to dial (specially if the number had many 9s and 0s, which made us wonder why the number we had to dial in case of an emergency was 199 – by the time you go to the second 9, chances were you’d have already been murdered or fainted or something) and had a trademark shrill ring. In today’s era of mobile and cordless phones, you’ll be hard put to find phones with rotary dials anymore. They’re antique pieces now.
It was also the time when you had to book a trunk call to talk to someone who lived just 20 km away. And it wasn’t easy. You had to call the operator, book the call, wait for ages before there was a response, then speak at supersonic speed (it was expensive) and at the top of your voice (the reception was often poor, so you had to yell so loudly, you could probably be heard three states away without the help of the phone). And every minute or so, the operator would interrupt: “Should I extend the call?”
it was the pager that began the advent of mobile communications before mobile phones and laptops entered our lives.
Invented in 1949, Motorola coined the term ‘pager’ for the device and started marketing it commercially in 1959. However, it wasn’t until 1995 that pagers came to India – and immediately taught us the value of looking important. Long before we’d heard of cell phones, the beep of the pager would interrupt meetings, destroy the sanctity of family gatherings and ruin romantic dinners for life. You saw plenty of people with pagers clipped to their belts. But receiving and sending messages on pagers wasn’t as simple as short message service (SMS) though. The drill often involved calling the service operator to receive and send messages.
Cell phones, which came to India just a few months after the pager did, spelt disaster for pagers and finally eased them out. From around 20 lakh (2 million) pagers in 1998, the number of pagers in India dipped to under 5 lakh (500,000) by 2002. Cuts in cell phone tariffs and cheaper phone handsets further ensured that the number of pagers plummeted to a lakh by 2004. Pagers are pretty much impossible to find in India now.
In USA and UK, however, pagers are still popular with emergency and medical services, as they work even in times of extreme network congestion. In fact, pagers were used extensively for evacuation work during Hurricane Rita and Hurricane Katrina in USA four years ago.
For most people who lived in the 1980s and early 1990s, a Walkman was a prized possession. Walkmans became popular in India at a time when radio had lost its charm thanks to the popularity of television. The small device not only made our favourite music portable, but also created – for the first time – the idea of “privacy” for teens, much to the agitation of family elders. The image of young people listening to a Walkman, oblivious of the world around them, symbolised a new generation.
Sony built the portable audio cassette player in 1978 and first marketed it in 1979. By the 30th anniversary of Walkman in July 2009, Sony had sold 385 million Walkman machines worldwide.
Though the Walkman is now available in MP3 and digital formats, it has failed to capture the imagination of the iPod generation. The cassette Walkman player is being phased out in many countries. Sony Walkman, which came to India in 1994, phased out the cassette format of Walkman in 2007-08. But the sales of MP3 Walkmans haven’t been doing too well compared to the iPod and there is a good reason to believe that the Walkman is breathing its last.
Still, if you’re nostalgic, you can always look it up in your dictionary. In 1986 the word ‘Walkman’ was included in the Oxford English Dictionary, so it’s found its place in posterity!
Still camera film rolls
In a world that is going digital in every way, still film rolls are unlikely to survive for long. In the last few years declining sales have forced industry leaders such as Nikon, Kodak and Canon to stop production of most of their cameras that use film rolls.
George Eastman invented the film roll and founded Eastman Kodak Company in 1888. The biggest jolt to film rolls came when, in June this year, Kodak (citing shrinking demand) decided to phase out its legendary Kodachrome, the first commercially successful colour still film invented way back in 1935.
The slow death of film rolls in the last few years has transformed the experience of photography for both amateurs and professionals. Digital cameras have killed the excitement of getting photos back from the developing studio and arranging them in a photo album. For professionals, the magic of developing photographs could be lost forever – though Adobe Photoshop lovers might want to disagree here.
VHS and the VCR
The introduction of colour television on the eve of the 1982 Asian Games prompted a demand for the videocassette recorder or VCR in urban India. The market for VCRs in India continued to grow and the domestic demand, according to a Government of India report, reached 350,000 sets per annum by 1989. The introduction of VCD and subsequently DVD players halted the growth of the VCR market in India in the 1990s. Onida, Sharp and Videocon are some of the brands one remembers.
VCRs brought about a revolution in our personal life. Special occasions such as weddings and birthdays and our favourite television programmes could now be recorded, but more importantly, we could now see ourselves on the screen. Move over Amitabh Bachchan and Co. We were the new stars!
We also became used to incandescent lights needed for video recording following us at weddings. Mom and Pop stores renting our favourite Bollywood movies – on VHS cassettes – sprang up at every nook and corner. People started building their personal film libraries – of course they didn’t anticipate DVDs at that time.
The typewriter was invented as far back as in the 18th century. Two centuries later, in pre-1990s India, you could still find typists furiously typing on the machine in most offices. In 1867, E Remington and Sons developed the first commercial typewriter in New York, using the QWERTY keyboard – a format we use to this date. Owning a Remington typewriter was a matter of prestige and typewriters in those days cost nothing less than what good computers and laptops cost now.
The 20th century also saw the introduction of the electric typewriter, which unfortunately, wasn’t a huge advance over the manual one except that it could type faster. Typewriters led to the creation of a new profession – typists – and for a long time, the only working women you saw in Bollywood movies were typists. Typing schools also mushroomed across the country. There was no spell check, backspace or word count. Being a typist meant you had to have an excellent command over the language and be extremely fast.
The plight of the typewriter became evident in the mid-Nineties when industry veterans such as Smith Corona filed for bankruptcy and others like Royal typewriters started selling printers, faxes and copiers to survive.
The arrival of personal computers has pushed this wonderful creation into oblivion.
Fifteen years ago the black, tissue-like carbon paper with its distinct smell could be seen everywhere, from small grocery stores, banks and dry-cleaners to the biggest retail chains in town. It was and still is the easiest non-electronic way to copy a document instantly. The modern office set-up with printers and photocopiers has made it difficult for simple carbon paper to survive. The ink on a carbon paper copy tends to fade as the years pass and chances are that it would be hard to read a copy made 20 years ago. Most people are only too glad to get rid of the paper that left smudgy ink marks on one’s hands.
Five things that have made a comeback
having been almost extinct for years, turntables or record players are slowly making a comeback and not as only as antique display items this time. Music lovers are recognising the better sound quality of vinyl records. Vinyl turntables are also gradually bringing back the trend of listening to music in large groups, which, thanks to the Walkman, MP3 and iPods, had completely disappeared.
From the time when 2,75,000 radio sets tuned in to listen to Nehru’s ‘tryst with destiny’ speech in 1947 to the time when programmes on film, music, farming and social development became popular, radio played an important role in our lives. Many of us will remember listening to Vividh Bharati, Hawa Mahal, cricket commentaries and news on All India Radio (AIR). In the 1980s, urban India dumped the big radio sets in favour of television. But with the coming of FM radio stations (mostly after 2000), car stereos, mobiles, radio has re-entered our lives.
Movies set in Kashmir
In the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s, Kashmir was the most popular outdoor location for Bollywood. Who can forget films like Kashmir Ki Kali where Shammi Kapoor romanced Sharmila Tagore in a shikara on Dal Lake in his best shuddering-jelly-like fashion? Or Junglee where he ran after Saira Banu down snowy slopes? Even in later years, films like Kabhi Kabhie were shot in Kashmir. Militancy in the Valley from the late 1980s onwards ensured that Bollywood stayed away from the state. Kashmir disappeared from the film landscape and Switzerland took its place. Recently, however, some filmmakers have ventured there again and we’ve had films like Mission Kashmir, Yahaan, Tahaan and Sikandar, all shot in Kashmir.
Most of us were introduced to fountain pens when we graduated from pencils to pens in schools. We would invariably come back with ink stains on our shirts and hands. The introduction of gel, roller, pilot and different varieties of ballpoint pens almost pushed the fountain pen aside. But now they’re back in vogue: Mont Blanc, Cartier, Conway Stewart, Aurora, and Caran d’Ache offer fountain pens that often cost more than Rs 100,000. Using a fountain pen these days is considered quite a style statement.
Khadi and jholas
Khadi in India was never just a piece of cloth. Thanks to Gandhiji, it became a political symbol and emblematic of the freedom struggle. In the 1980s-1990s khadi seemed to lose its charm for a while, only to make a comeback a few years ago. Oversized kurtas have given way to khadi garments of all kinds priced anywhere, between Rs 100 and Rs 50,000. And markets are also flooded with jholas of different shapes and colours. You may own several Louis Vuitton handbags but a jhola is in a class of its own. From political statement to fashion statement, the journey of khadi and the jhola has been a fascinating one.