In the early 1970s, telephones were so scarce they were regarded as status symbols. I read at around that time that New York City had more telephones than the whole of India.
I remember that my father, who worked as a junior officer in a local public sector steel plant, was not in the normal (bureaucratic-) course of things eligible for a private telephone connection (yes, you needed official permission for that sort of thing). Because he was the founder general secretary of their Officers’ Association, he needed one, and he got it by personal recommendation of the then Chief Minister, no less. We had four-digit numbers then, and ours was 2788. So it remained for nearly a decade, before my father quit that job, moved to the then newly-developing Bidhan Nagar (still sneered at as a bucolic retreat – gondograam – by many), and got a new number: 6423. The years passed, until the Department of Telecommunications, which still controlled everything, took it into its head to add two numerals, so then it became 53 6423. A few years later, the ‘modernization’ drive still continuing, the numeral 2 was added ahead of that. And then the privatization drive began in right earnest, followed hard on the heels (I am talking of the turn of the century) by the onslaught of privately-sold and serviced mobile phones. Meanwhile the landline connection had been transferred to my name.
Almost a decade ago, we already had several mobile phones in the family. By that time the DOT had morphed into BSNL, and everybody knew that it was rapidly sinking into obscurity and insolvency, kept going only by endless government subsidies, and actively sabotaged, it was alleged, by the private operators. I had a dial-up internet connection, which was unimaginably slow by today’s standards, and I had a growing suspicion that they were overbilling me, so I got a cable connection instead (much cheaper and much faster – yes, even now, in comparison with those silly dongles). I was going to surrender the phone too, but a senior official, whose son was then a pupil, urged me not to, arguing that my number was too well known, and its absence would cause trouble to a lot of people. He told me to get a ‘Sulabh’ connection, which I did – I’d get incoming calls at a low, flat rental, and I could make outgoing calls (which in the event I never did) with a prepaid card. I put in a parallel line too, and got a cordless unit downstairs for convenience. That too must have been at least fifteen years ago.
Eventually I put my public mobile number on the signboard outside, and over the last two years I had been noticing that very few calls came in on the landline any more, either because the phone was out of order (which was frequently) or because people increasingly preferred the mobile instead – understandably, since half the time I, being outdoors or taking classes, didn’t answer the landline. So I was paying that rental for nothing.
With me, old attachments die hard, but I do bow to the inevitable sooner or later, unless it is too unpleasant a prospect to countenance. So this morning I turned in the landline at last. Now, in this matter at least, I am like everybody else. However, I see nothing to be elated about. Just a necessity, as the sanitary water closet once became. And I am not one of those who buy millon-dollar wc-s just to acquire some ‘status’ in the eyes of idiots…as they already wrote in a Bangla newspaper several years ago, real ‘status’ will soon attach to those who are (ostensibly-) too important and busy to carry about their own phones, as PMs and celebrities and busy surgeons and lawyers and suchlike already are.