We did not have a telephone in our house when we were children. Perhaps this childhood deprivation scarred my psyche somehow, because till today I’m not really a phone-person, being rather abrupt and let’s-get-it-over-quickly on the phone, even on my soul/cell-mate mobile.
But when we were children, phones were immobile, kept majestically on their special pedestals (usually the top of some bureau/showcase covered in flowery-embroidered cloth, out of reach of pesky toddlers) and attached to wall with a special curly wire. I always wondered where it came out after going inside the wall. The phones just SAT, menacing in their big black boxiness, emitting a shrill loud unmistakable tring-tring to beckon the entire household if there was a call.
The neighbours across our house had one such big black phone (far more solemn than the colourful light cellphones we carry nowadays). My mamabari (maternal grandparents’ house) had another such. Having a phone in the house raised the status of the family in the social pecking order. It also meant having an enormous social responsibility. Because all the neighbours would troop to your house to make calls from your phone if the need arose (as it inevitably did). Also, inevitably, it meant taking calls on behalf of your neighbours and shouting from the balcony to them to come and speak to whoever was calling them. Because of these, er, network (social, not telecom) problems, telephone calls were restricted to necessities, not frivolities. Which is not a bad thing at all.
I was very scared of speaking on the telephone. Because, in those days, you never got directly connected to any familiar, friendly voice of the person to whom you wanted to make the call. The calls had to be made via the local telephone exchange, where there would be some gruff-voiced disembodied telephone operator who would listen impatiently to your request to connect you to the required number, BARKING at every hesitation you made, and, with an almost audible sigh of irritable exasperation at being disturbed, he/she would condescend to do so in a voice dripping with unfriendly sarcasm. I am SURE it was NOT like that at all, only that it SEEMED so to my shaky-scared ears and trembling-stuttering voice.
Even when the call was put through and some familiar person was on the line, the crackle and distance would somehow de-familiarise the voice and make it cold and distant (pun intended now but not felt then). And because I was nervous about not being able to hear clearly, I always spoke very quickly in a very loud voice, trying desperately to end the conversation ASAP and putting down the receiver with relief, my hands clammy with gripping too hard and ears burning with effort.
WHAT ARE YOUR EARLIEST TELEPHONE MEMORIES?