Old landline phones-1573215221840
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A few of us “oldies” remember the time when telephones were meant for communication during emergencies only. No, we were not born before Alexander Graham Bell, and we do not pick up a phone and yell “Haal-loo” into it when it rings … but we do recall those days.

Although father was always on call as a police officer, we didn’t get a phone in the house until the mid-1960s. It was kept in a hallowed nook in father’s study and none of us kids were allowed to pick it up when it rang. Usually, one of our parents answered, or if they were out, then only the eldest of us could do the honours.

After a couple of years of this formality in the use of the telephone, everyone’s guard was let down a bit and we began to take the ringing of the phone at home for granted. We had grown up enough to not babble incomprehensibly into the instrument and so restrictions about answering the phone were lifted — but we kids rarely got a personal call from a friend on it. If we were invited to a birthday party or to play, it was always a parent who communicated with the other parent.

When father was transferred to New Delhi, having a phone at home ceased to be a “perk” and became more of a necessity, and we found that all our new friends had phones in their houses too. What’s more, if we were quiet and sneaky, we could have a good long chat with those friends when father was at the office and mother was enjoying her afternoon nap.

Most often, of course, we got caught out when we resorted to any form of skulduggery. Father would have to work late just that day — and he would be frantically dialling home to inform mother and would get a persistent “engaged” tone — and we would face the music on his return. Both our parents would remind us that the phone was for emergencies, not for entertainment!

As teenagers, however, we were often allowed to talk our hearts out on the phone with friends who lived across town. Maybe our parents thought it better to fend off an emergency and have us safely at home and on the phone than out of sight and out of reach with our friends …

Then marriage led me into a phone-less life in distant cantonments, but it was like returning to my childhood and it didn’t faze me much. Everything I wanted and needed was right around me, so who needed a phone? If there was an emergency, we could yell for help, couldn’t we?

It was only decades later, when we acquired a “civilian” phone, one on which we could dial whomever we pleased without going through an army operator, that the floodgates opened. We talked for hours to friends. We were always on call for family.

And then, before we could fully comprehend the enormity of it, the telecom revolution took place and suddenly there was a mobile phone in every hand. The days of “emergency” phone calls were over.

Everyone was talking to someone all the time, or texting, or updating themselves and their social circle: like every moment of every day has to be “accounted for” in talk-time or it does not exist.

And so, we have reached the stage of blow-by-blow accounts of normal workday movements we didn’t need to know earlier: “Leaving the office now,” “Ten minutes away,” “Open the gate,” and so on, until the spouse or offspring finally walks through the front door with their mobile phone still in their faces (as they probably update someone else), and not a smile or a “Hello” or a civil response to “How was your day?”

Maybe face-to-face encounters are now only for emergencies …?

— Cheryl Rao is a journalist based in India.