There was no cell phone those days. The government Post and Telegraph department had the monopoly of providing telephone service to whoever wanted it.
The lineman would put a brand new instrument, weighing about a kilo, on your table and connect it to the telephone pole on the street through a long cord hanging over your head. He would energise it and the job is done.
Making local calls was okay in that dispensation, but users wanting to make a long distance call (commonly known as trunk call) had to depend on the goodness of telephone exchange operators. You want to discuss some private matters with your wife currently in some other city. But the shrill, cold voice at the other end would tell you: “The line is busy. Please wait.” After a long ordeal, your call materialises. After every three minutes even as you are talking to your wife she or he would butt in to tell you, “Three minutes are over. Want to extend?”
Nervously, you say, “Yes, yes.”
“Ok”, comes the reply.
You get another three minutes, but your conversation is still incomplete. The phone operator jumps in again to tell you that you are not allowed more than nine minutes in one go. You lose your cool. You silently curse the operator because you can’t do anything more. You disconnect the line even without wishing your wife “good night” and “sweet dreams”.
Both husband and wife squirm in their beds the whole night but cannot share their feelings because neither can afford another “trunk call”.
Luckily, one fine morning we heard about a “revolutionary change” being brought about in the communication system. “Henceforth, you won’t have to depend on the telephone operator. Just dial the called party’s number prefixing zero and talk as much as you like. No eves dropping and no three-minute business any more,” a government spokesman tells you, sounding like a saviour.
The new mode that came into being was known as STD (subscriber’s trunk dialling).
Being a great facility, it quickly caught fancy of telephone users throughout the country and became hugely popular. Due to its business potential, innumerable STD and ISD (international subscriber’s dialling) booths cropped up overnight not only in shops, but even in the side rooms of private houses.
Today, almost every person possesses a cell phone. This has rendered STD irrelevant to a great extent. The STD era is passe. I thank my stars because the STD facility remained a cause of great bother for my family for a considerable time some years ago.
We had a young man, Suresh (name changed), a distant relative, living in Varanasi, who made liberal use of STD by frequently calling up his sister-in-law (his newly-married elder brother’s spouse). The young lady, Neera (name changed), belonged to Lucknow where she frequently came to meet her parents. As they did not have a base phone, calls meant for them were made on ours and somebody had to go to their house, about a furlong away, to ask them to come for the call.
We would leave the room whenever they talked. But seemingly, Suresh’s brother used to take over from him at the Varanasi end for a “heart-to-heart” talk with his wife in the true sense of the term — at our cost. That was understandable. But whether it was the hot winds of May, rains, or a wintry day, it did not matter to them. Good relations prevented us from expressing ourselves.
Besides this, there was another factor that was bothering us more. Whenever Suresh called up there were gaps in his speech. It used to be something like this, “I am ... calling ... Varanasi. Please call ... my ... I will ... again”. It was like an aeroplane making bumpy rides after getting caught in air pocket.
Initially, none of us in the family could make head or tail of it and did not know what to do. On two occasions I thought there was something wrong with the phone cord. I would check it and found it in order.
After some time, the young man came to Lucknow to meet his sister-in-law and paid a visit to thank and apologise for the inconvenience caused to us. He spoke in bumpy Hindi which was something like this: “Sorry, ... been ... ing ... you all ... for ... long ... I will ... doing it ... some more time ... please bear ... me.
The mystery was solved by the stuttering young man himself. I told him that the deficiency was not of his making. He was just one of the thousands of his ilk the world over. He should live like any normal person. I apologised to him if I had even inadvertently hurt him in any manner. When Suresh thanked me with a big smile, I felt a little embarrassed in my heart for having misunderstood the situation.
Lalit Raizada is a journalist based in India.