The “2670964” Malady

November 1, 2010 Off By Sankhya Samhita

Once upon a time in some quaint little town lived a young girl called… okay, that’s irrelevant to this story, but let’s just call her Kiddo. Because that’s just what she was, a kid. And the one purpose in her life was to grow up someday and be just like her elder sister who we will call Bu in our story. For thirteen years of her impressionable life, she lived day in and day out trying to mimic her Bu in all possible ways, including listening to the same music her Bu did, trying to read the same books her Bu read (even though an age difference of six years made it quite impossible for her to grasp the meaning of everything that was there in those books), and even changing her “aim in life” to keep in pace with the “current” career trend in her Bu’s life. And that, she thought was the be all and end all of life, until one day Fate (or maybe their Dad, let’s not get too specific) decided that Bu had to go away (five hours away from home!!!) to study engineering. And Kiddo’s world shattered.

The day their parents went to help Bu shift to the godforsaken (in Kiddo’s eyes, obviously) Engineering College, Bu sent a hand written note in her parent’s hands, writing to Kiddo about how she had to settle in a dormitory with space the size of a shoe box to herself, and Kiddo read and re-read that letter till the tear-stained paper was in the danger of tearing to tatters. And sat down to write a reply that moment itself, about how life just wouldn’t be the same ever again, and how was she expected to go through the horrifying ordeal called school now that her confidante was so far away?

Solace came in the form of a phone number. Even though it was that of the landline in the girls’ hostel Bu was in, and even though it would be an STD call (that was way before calls to any town in her state were made local, with the concept of “95” added to the STD code yet to be introduced) it was good enough. That the girls’ hostel housed hundreds of girls other than her Bu, and that her Bu was not sitting right next to the phone waiting for the call from home was something that didn’t quite register in Kiddo’s mind. And so each night Kiddo would happily sit on the stool near the landline, clearing her throat now and then as she would wait for the blessed call to get through, and for the busy tone to once be replaced by the sound of the phone ringing. The phone set being deprived of the “redial” button, she’d have to dial the same number (11 digits in all!) again and again, and wait. And wait. And wait some more, until one hour later, when her mother would gently come and say, “Tomorrow, dear. It’s too late now. Tomorrow, the call will get through”. And Kiddo would sadly leave the coveted seat, the heavy phone warm in her sweaty palms, all the things she’d wanted to tell her sister unsaid. It just wouldn’t be the same next day, would it?

Some lucky nights the phone would get through, and some girl, who was definitely not her sister, would pick up the call, and Kiddo would promptly ask for her sister, making sure she added a “Please?” and “Thank you” at the end of it. “Hrmph” was most likely to be the reply from the other end, but the wait that followed would be something else altogether. Straining her ears for the slightest sound and smiling as she heard footsteps approaching the phone, Kiddo would repeat in her mind all the things she had wanted to say to her Bu. And then, sweet music, her sister’s voice…! Mostly the conversation would have to wrapped up within five minutes, ten, if she was lucky. “People are waiting for calls” her Bu would whisper. And within that time her mother, her father and her grandmother, they’d all say their Hi’s and Hello’s. Long after the line would be disconnected, the discussion would still be “Don’t you think she sounded sad?”, “No, must have been the connection”, “I couldn’t hear properly so I just kept laughing” (that would be their grandmother), “Did she mention when she’s coming home?”, and so on and so forth.

Some unfortunate evenings the footsteps ensuing the line on hold wouldn’t be her sister’s. It would be some girl informing her that Bu was not available, so could Kiddo please try some other time? Kiddo’s “Could you tell me when?” would only extract another “Hrmph” and the line would go dead. But then started “that” time when her sister started dating this dude from her college, and it got even more difficult to get hold of her. And Kiddo, being trained by her sister in disaster management from a very young age, found herself lying to her parent’s to save her sister more often than before. Like this one time when Bu’s room-mate told Kiddo that Bu was out dating, and Kiddo didn’t know what to tell her mother who was standing right next to her wanting to talk to Bu, and kept mumbling “Hmmm”s and smiling until her mother took the phone from her and talked to Bu’s room mate herself. “She’s out doing group study in the canteen, atta girl”, her mother announced after hanging up the phone, and Kiddo had heaved a sigh of relief.

Then one day Kiddo got to know about something called a cell-phone. Who would have thought someday people would be able to carry their phones along with them? With a 10 digit number written carefully on a sheet of paper with the words “For Emergency Only” scribbled next to it, Kiddo wondered one day if she could actually talk to her sister whenever she wanted to, and not have to wait for that infernal landline to be free. What Kiddo didn’t know (and got to know almost half a year later) was to add a simple 0 before the number (even calls to cellphones were STD then), and lucky for her, for neither did she know that call charges to the cellphone was a horrifying Rs. 6 per minute, nor that even the person receiving the call would have to pay some amount to receive the call. And luckier still, for that number didn’t belong to her sister, but to some other young lady whose parents thought she was important enough to carry a cell-phone with her.

(And the story would have continued this way had Bu not decided to travel even further and leave her state altogether for her MBA, which meant even their Dad allowed Bu to get a cell-phone for herself. And so Kiddo was spared the agony of not being able to talk to her sister when she wanted to, even though it meant the advent of a whole new series of “Where is she?” lies)

Cut to 2004, when Kiddo herself had to come out of her place for her graduation, and found herself on the other end of the spectrum. The same government hostel, the same landline affair, and worse still, this one came with restrictions. Every evening from 6pm to 8pm was the so called “Study Hour” and the phone would be either taken off the hook, or the volume lowered so no one could hear it ringing. And woe betide anyone who took calls during that time. The initial days were hell for Kiddo. Cursed with a name no one could pronounce (now don’t make me say her name out loud here, will you? Just know that it was a difficult name) she would keep straining her ears to hear her name being yelled out from far away, and most of the times would run from her room only to realize that all the names sounded like hers. Worse still when it WAS a call for her, sometimes some confused girl would just hang up. Things became worse when she found herself trying hard to fight back tears at the sound of her mother’s voice after days and days of waiting; afterall she couldn’t cry at the public place where the phone was kept. PCO phone bills escalated at an alarming rate, and so did her frustration, specially since getting a phone call from home turned out to be more chancy than winning a lottery ticket.

To make it even more complicated, Kiddo started going around (ahem!) with a guy in her college (Could things get any more predictable than this?) and well, embraced with both hands the beautiful agony of waiting for *his* call to come. Never before had the sound of her name through the phone sounded this sweet, never before had hanging up the line been this difficult. And wonder of all sweet wonders, some days she would actually get to pick up his call herself, and then spend more than a minute giggling, and talking about how lucky she was to pass by the phone that very moment (talk about telepathy!). There was nothing more awesome and more romantic in the world than knowing that her guy was sitting by the phone for hours and dialing and re-dialing just so he could hear her voice, even if it would be for just a couple of minutes.

But slowly, it turned out to be more of a nuisance. Specially when dates got cancelled because she couldn’t confirm the timings with him, and fights got left midway unresolved because she would foolishly hang up on him only to realize seconds later that it only meant she wouldn’t get to talk to him until the next time his call gets through, which could again mean hours later, if he was lucky that is. For no sooner than she would hang up, that the phone would start ringing off the hook asking for every girl in the hostel but her. Some girls were in fact known to stand by the phone and glare at other girls using the phone, tapping their feet on the floor in impatience because they would be waiting for their guys to call them up. Being in love was so tough.

So Kiddo demanded a cell-phone this time from her parents. But Dad was unrelenting. Why would Kiddo need a phone when her sister didn’t have one during her graduation? What followed was a family drama of epic proportion, something that wouldn’t be forgotten in a hurry. And what would you call ironical if not the fact that all it took was one whole week of Kiddo’s parents trying to get hold of her on the same legendary hostel landline and failing (with Kiddo refusing to call from the PCO), and hence deciding that she needed a cell-phone afterall? And hence ended Kiddo’s tryst with the landline. Out went romantic anticipation, in came instant gratification.

And today as she tries to juggle calls from her sister and the guy in her life (who amazingly end up calling her at the same time!) and finds herself offending one or both of them, she finds herself wishing nobody had found the cure for the “2670964” malady. Life was difficult, true. But life sure was easier, if you know what I mean.

Afterword: 2670964 happens to be the actual number of the landline of a girls’ hostel in a famous engineering college, although with mobile phones in every girl’s hand, it is doubtful if that number still exists. If only as the epitome of the heights of patience a sister can endure to talk to her sister, I wish it still rings happily as ever.

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