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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Of cars and the man I sing

People of my generation remember cars as they remember people. Cars were not just a means of transport but used to have a personality, quite apart from the car owner’s or the car driver’s personality. Cars remained long enough in & with the family to turn into old faithfuls & trusty servitors. But the first car in my life was a monument to the glory days of the family as rice lords in a small town in suburban Bengal.

I’m talking about my mother’s family and the family seat sixty miles to the east of the city of Kolkata, whereas the monument in question was a greying automobile gradually turning green in the midst of a mango grove. It was a rag top convertible of sorts – very likely American, a Packard or a Hudson or a Desoto for all I know, from the Roaring Twenties, though it had long ceased to roar. It had curving fenders and foot boards and drum shaped headlights. One couldn’t turn the steering wheel any more, I remember. The tyres were flat & brittle or already missing, the rims or the axles resting on bricks. Every part of the car that could be fiddled with and broken or twisted off had fallen prey to generations of little cannibals like us – that’s me & my cousins – until what remained was the shape & the idea of an automobile, as if someone had been doing a sculpture and not bothering about the details. The undergrowth had shot up through the floorboards, the green tentacles & fronded leaves waving from the open cabriolet like inebriated party folk returning from an excursion. The rusty springs might have been all that was left of the seats – or I might be imagining.

And I do not even know whether the Rag Top (now beginning to look more like a Tree Top) was the first sign & symbol of prosperity & modernity in the aforesaid rice lords family, since a grandaunt of mine used to relate the story how her husband – the corresponding granduncle – insisted on driving to Dhaneshkhali (name changed) in his brand new Baby Austin with his brand new wife (the grandaunt) parked on the rear seat, as was only proper & seemly. Fortunately or unfortunately, granduncle left the trodden/tarred ways and decided to take a chukker of the countryside – with the result that grandaunt had to be brought back to the family mansion sitting in the Baby Austin like a demure bride, while some eight to twelve palanquin bearers carried the Baby Austin on their shoulders, balancing the hapless vehicle on bamboo poles. I’d tag classic Bengali filmmakers Ritwik Ghatak/Ajantrik/1958 and Satyajit Ray/Abhijan/1962 for this scene alone, if I could.

After that I remember the Morris Minor of a lawyer uncle of mine. I shall be eternally grateful to this uncle for introducing me to three pleasures of life at one go: (i) he took me and his son, my cousin, for a ride in his Morris Minor; (ii) he took us to the Globe Cinema to see Sergeants 3; and (iii) he took us to Kwality’s afterwards to give me (at least) my first taste of restaurant food. The Globe was yet to be renovated, so it was still in the Bijou Grand Opera House state, with carved cast iron pillars holding up the balconies. Just my luck that I had one of those pillars in front of me and had to play peekaboo with the Rat Pack for the whole of the show as a result – that’s Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. &co., never knew it was their last movie in that combination. Worse, it’s taken me fifty-odd years to wake up to the fact that Sergeants 3 was a spoof western built on Kipling’s Gunga Deen!

The next car in my life was my uncle’s – the talk is now of my youngest maternal uncle – who used to live in the same house as us in South Calcutta, the house in question belonging to my maternal grandfather and so on – but the point of the story is that my room was on the mezzanine floor, that’s at the landing of the stairs between the ground floor and the first floor, with the garage right beneath. In that garage rested my uncle’s Standard Herald like some past emperor in his grave while I held vigil above. Otherwise the car looked like a tinny, miniaturised, Madras version of the fifties’ Cadillacs and Chevrolets with their tail fins & the rest. My uncle used to look after that Standard Herald like his own son. How he drove it was another matter.

My elder sister bought a second hand Ambassador (car!) when her family was growing and decided to call it Sangram Singh for its sheer battling spirit. Maharana Sangram Singh was none other than the legendary Rana Sanga of the Rajputs, who had led a powerful Hindu confederacy in the 16th century. In the 20th, ‘Sangram Singh’ finally changed hands when our youngest brother bought it as his first car – ‘Sangram Singh’ was slightly younger than him at that point of time, if I remember correctly.

Cut to: Calcutta street scene during the monsoons. My brother is driving down Mayo Road in the pouring rain, yours truly in the passenger seat, the vehicle being none other than Sangram Singh. My brother is saying nonchalantly that the brakes are not working, they never do in the rains but I’m not to worry. I can see the Chowringhee Road crossing coming up, complete with the traffic light, which is on red. Cars to the left of us, cars to the right of us, cars in front – what will happen if the brakes do not hold?

My brother started braking with another fifty metres to go to the traffic light. The car hardly slowed down – oder doch? I had started thinking in German by then, in my desperation! And then I saw. All the other cars were braking too and having trouble with their brakes, just like Sangram Singh, so that the whole moity somehow grinded to a halt just yards before the pile-up of the century.

“You see, Dada, this is Kolkata. Everybody’s brakes are buggered, so nobody’s buggered,” my brother explained, before he turned into Kyd Street. It was not his fault. We used to speak like that in Kolkata.

Between Staying and Going away (2)

For my farewell from the Huchukparah mess we made that trip to the lava mounds of Tulin with the lac trees growing among the boulders. We drank Mohan Meakin’s Saki (a blended whisky) sitting on pure geology and stared down at the lakes scattered among the green fields like the red earth’s blue, placid eyes. There’s a worm in those waters which eats into the skin between the toes and works its way up through the body.

The railway line and the Hindal aluminium factory on the other side of the highway looked like the history of civilisation but we were sad. We were sad because I was going away from Purulia – forever. Unless I returned as the Branch Manager some day. All my mess mates wished that I would. It’s the way human beings fool themselves when parting becomes inevitable.

I, we, the expat family, used to go to India every other year and I remember my mother’s face the day that we arrived and the day that we left. Like sunrise and sunset. Like that song in Fiddler on the Roof.

You see, human beings were nomads first, who stayed together wherever they went, it was the earth that moved. And then they built the villages, each village so far away from the previous one that they wouldn’t be able to see the smoke from each other’s fires and distance and absence and forgetfulness were born.

Mother never blamed me. Nor my siblings. Nor my father. Nobody in the family. They all left me alone with my guilt merely asking: ‘When are you coming next?’ And it was my turn to lie. Whereas I had disembowelled the family when I went away, I had taken away its centre, that’s what I believed. My elder sister heard that one and laughed: ‘Just who do you take yourself for?’ Her eldest son has migrated to Australia now, serve her right.

Mother standing on the landing in front of the entrance while we piled into the taxi, two taxis, as a matter of fact, would be ‘Taxen’ in German, as I was explaining to my younger brother, as if it was a joke, as if all languages were a joke, countries, jet flights and ‘When are you coming next?’ were a joke. Mother had her aanchal, that’s the border of her sari, to her mouth, covering half her face. Like all Bengali mothers, she knew it would be inauspicious to cry at the moment of departure. At what other moment should she cry, should we cry, can someone tell me? While writing a blog eight years after her death, perhaps?

If you want to kill a blog, try getting sentimental about your dear departed mother, or father, or even your youngest brother who was in a hurry to meet His Maker or maybe His Maker was in a hurry to meet him. God will know what do with such a soul, clever, compassionate, generous, gregarious.

Meanwhile, I’m trying to return to my theme, which is between staying and going away. I thought I was going away, huh! Mother didn’t even tell me when she went away, they rang me up later. My youngest brother told me when they were taking him to the hospices and we did talk a few times after that. But even he didn’t tell me when he’d be coming next.

I’ll come and see him when the time comes, he knew.