In memoriam: the Bakelite telephone

You must have seen the squat little thing a hundred times in pre-Technicolor movies: the dumbbell receiver cradled on a truncated pyramid with a round dial for a face, the digits from 0 to 9 written in the holes. Zero used to be right at the bottom, with the dragon’s tooth next to it to stop your finger from dialling beyond that point.

I remember the cloth-covered curly cord connecting the receiver to the main body of the telephone which used to turn stringy and unelastic like a pyjama cord with use, or tie itself up in knots so that you had to bend down and hold an entire conversation in that semi-foetal position before hanging up and finally finding the time to unravel the ruddy thing.

The dialling was an exercise in patience, especially if you were in a hurry, because you could dial the zero fast enough – the zero being right next to the ‘finger stopper’. You could dial ‘1’ with almost equal ease, though this time the dialling finger had to go all the way from the top to the bottom – with the difference that it took several seconds for the dial to come back to the neutral position, making that catarrhal K-r-r-r-r-h sound. And the ‘engaged’ tone did not come right away either. You dialled the whole number and then got the engaged tone. Or you got the wrong number.

That’s what I tell the youngsters of today: the whole fun has gone out of wrong numbers. Today you get a wrong number because the number you have dialled or some other fool has dialled is wrong. In the olden days, you did everything right and still got a wrong number because the girl at the exchange – she used to get into the fray from time to time, asking you to vacate the line, there’s a trunk call coming and so on.

The telephone did not ring all that often in those days, hence the whole household was electrified when the phone rang, with that frantic K-r-r-r-n-g Kr-r-r-r-n-g, pause, K-r-r-r-n-g Kr-r-r-r-n-g noise like a fire alarm on fire! You ran into something and hurt your knee trying to reach the telephone before anyone else – might be your girlfriend ringing up whom your mother dislikes intensely and has been waiting for just an opportunity like this to be nasty to, if only on the telephone. And then it turns out to be a wrong number, someone asking whether this was the hosiery factory, yes, next to the hooch shop? Bless him.

There was only one thing better than wrong numbers and these were the cross connections. Now, don’t look up ‘cross connection’ on Google because they’ll tell you that it’s got something to do with plumbing and/or datacentres. The old-fashioned cross connection was some innocent mutt being plugged into the conversation that you’re having – and Gawd help you if that person is not a mutt but someone like my youngest maternal uncle – may his soul rest in peace – who simply used to wait for the wrong numbers and the cross connections with glee – he used to love creating confusion and Calcutta Telephones’ other name was confusion, so they suited each other to a T.

Telephone rings. Wrong number. Uncle grabs the receiver and says, ‘Speak. What can I do for You?’ (Which is not rude or impolite in Bengali, especially when combined with the respect form of address). ‘Is this the house of Mister So-and-so?’ Uncle puts on a grave voice and says: ‘Yes. Anything else?’ ‘I wanted to talk to him…’ ‘I’m sorry. You should have rung up yesterday, no, even this morning. You could still have seen him, even if you couldn’t speak to him.’ ‘Why? What has happened?’ asks the frightened voice. Uncle turns solemn, and then pious: ‘He had a heart attack last night and we took him to the cremating ground this morning. Just coming back from there.’ Stunned silence at the other end, funereal silence at Uncle’s. Then the timid query from the other side: ‘Are you still there?’ ‘Yes,’ Uncle says, ‘and this is still a wrong number, you twit.’ Cruel? Yes, but fun.

If Uncle ever got a cross connection, again, Gawd help the other two at their respective ends! Uncle could create more confusion with an occasional ‘yes’ or an intermittent ‘no’ than you’d imagine possible. ‘Did you mean it when you said that I’m too fat?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Okay, if it’s that way…’ ‘Wait! Wait! That wasn’t me. There’s somebody on the line…’ They both listen. Uncle listens too. Then the doves start cooing again: ‘Do you really love me?’ the girl seems to be anxious. ‘No,’ Uncle says and so on.

Those Bakelite telephones have eavesdropped on more intimate conversations in their time than the NSA in ours. The Bakelite telephone would burn forever in hell if it was left to mothers like mine – the sweet lady is no more, but some of her choicest sarcasm was reserved for the occasions when I was hanging at that Bakelite telephone chatting to – you don’t really have to know. I used to bring Shall-Remain-Nameless back to her hostel, catch the bus back home and ring up the hostel at once – a girls’ hostel with God knows how many inmates but just that one telephone. ‘She’s in the shower. Shall we call her?’ giggle, giggle. And then an irate Shall-Remain-Nameless would materialise at the other end, though none too pleased, to judge by her voice: ‘Yes, what is it? What d’you want?’ ‘Why, are you in a hurry?’ ‘I’m in my towel.’ Silence. Suspicion at the other end: ‘Are you still there?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Then why aren’t you saying anything?’ ‘D’you know they’ll be having telephones in the future where you’ll be able to see the person you’re talking to?’

Our telephone number used to be 4*2*6*. After the ground floor flat on Hazra Road had been ‘vacated’ by all of us as if the girl at the exchange – no, as if we were on the set of ‘Friends’ and the series was over, an unusual thing happened: nobody dismantled the set and nobody lived there either. So the place was locked up for years with the scrub growing in the kitchen courtyard. Me and my youngest brother, we used to ring up 4*2*6* from as far away as Bonn and Ottawa for years afterwards, just to hear that ghostly ring.

I quoted the first lines of Walter de la Mare’s The Listeners to my brother: “‘Is there anybody there?’ said the Traveller” and so on.

My brother, who like yours truly had made the mistake of studying English Literature at a young and impressionable age, quoted Donne right back at me: “therefore never send to know for whom the phone rings; it rings for thee.”

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