The favourite family story, each time my father meets his aunts and cousins, goes something like this:
My father was a young employee at Naresh Goyal’s Jetair in New Delhi in the early 1990s. During a meeting, the aviation mogul was talking to his employees about how the Chinese mastered communication, and how much everyone could learn from them. My father, unburdened yet by years of corporate life dulling his wit, quipped in Punjabi, “Sir, you only have to meet my mother and her sisters. They can teach the Chinese a thing or two about communication.”
The reason this story is a family staple is because it is true to the bone. My grandmother, her three sisters and a brother were communication wizards in an era when the internet was a thing of science fiction. There was no family news that did not travel at the speed of sound and there was no family member who was spared this attention.
Thirteen years after her death, I realise today that it was a necessity to survive an increasingly lonely old age. Her older sister, Raj Kumari, though her husband passed away only a few years before her, was a guiding force among the sisters. My grandmother was widowed at 40, her sister Santosh, fondly called Toshi was widowed later and lived alone, and her youngest sister Kamlesh was living away from her husband who was working in the US. The four sisters were each others’ companions, sharing joys and sorrows, political opinions, family gossip, home remedies, views on afterlife, marriage, sex.
They would talk to each other every day, make elaborate weekly lunch plans and visit the most recent restaurants in town wearing their favourite pastel saris. Kumari aunty would often hire a taxi from her home in New Delhi’s Janak Puri, pick up my grandmother from our home, along the way to Kamlesh aunty’s government accommodation in Tilak Lane and on to Toshi aunty’s home in Jangpura.
Imagine planning this elaborate route pre-cellphone and GPS days. But they could stick to it because they were all sticklers for time. If Kumari aunty called my grandmother and said she would pick her up at 11 am, my grandmother would have tottered down the stairs with her walking stick and her purse at 10.58 am. And she would be back sharp at 5 pm to switch on the motor to fill our water storage tanks.
My grandmother had a social life that I envy even now. She would frequently meet former colleagues, her students from when she was a teacher, friends from her student days and her siblings. The planning happened over the most important member of our family, the beloved landline. And sometimes, it led to hilarious wars.
Answer the phone!
My only memory of my grandmother slapping my face – I made sure she felt guilty about that till she died – was an incident over a red landline phone.
It was a Sunday evening and my paternal aunt had called to speak to my grandmother. I, an excited three-year-old, snatched the phone from my grandmother to say hello to the said aunt. In one swooping motion, as I put the receiver to my ear, my grandmother’s free hand landed on my other cheek. I think it shocked us both: me into tears and my grandmother into years of repentance that proved quite lucrative for me.
That this altercation happened over a phone is not shocking at all. As a family, we took our phone calls seriously. This was the early 1990s, when not every Indian household had a landline, there was no call waiting and no caller ID. There were no private players in the market and the only telecom service provider in Delhi was the state-owned Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited.
No caller ID meant that even if you were in the shower and the phone rang, you had to make a dash for it. In the prime of health, my grandmother would drop everything and rush to the landline, because if she missed the call, it meant calling at least five or six regular suspects to check if they called.
Years later, when her knees had become osteoporotic, the phone would ring and my grandmother would leap up to wobble towards the phone. Generally, there was at least one person scolding her, one person making jokes and another dashing ahead to answer the call. This routine was so entrenched that it didn’t change even when our house had cordless phones, and later, phones with caller ID.
Once call waiting came into our lives, especially on landlines with no caller ID display, it meant all conversation had to be dropped and the caller on the other line had to be responded to. The logic was simple and brutal – we know we’re talking to you and can call you back. If we miss the call on wait, we’ll anyway have to cut this conversation short and go on a fact-finding mission.
This meant you could be in the middle of an intense argument, a depressing story, or some joyous career news, but a simple “call waiting hai” could cut you short mid-sentence. This had nothing to do with the degree of affection the sisters had for their current caller. I would like to think I was my grandmother’s favourite and even my calls were unceremoniously interrupted. But she always called back.
Conversation was important and it was never left hanging.
Landline numbers were six digits long and after nearly three decades, I still remember my maternal grandmother’s, my best friend’s, my aunt’s and my own home number. My grandmother remembered at least 20 more on her fingertips and kept at least five times more in her meticulously maintained phonebook.
When my grandmother and her sister both developed macular degeneration, an irreversible decline in eyesight because of old age, I was tasked with something crucial. My evenings that summer of 2000 were dedicated to taking a thick black marker and transferring all of her phonebook contacts into a readable font. She would simply ask me to read out her bank passbook or savings certificates and a magnifying glass was kept handy for everything else. But the phonebook was non-negotiable. As were the daily check-in calls between the sisters as they grew older.
One evening, I walked into my grandmother’s room and she was sitting like she always did – on an off-white Neelkanth plastic chair, her legs propped up on the bed in front of her, the phone on her lap and its receiver on her right ear. She was staring vacantly ahead. I was alarmed, so I hurriedly walked up to her.
Her face broke into a grin, she sat up straight and told Toshi aunty on the phone, “Achha Toshi, main rakhti hun [Okay Toshi, I’ll hang up now].” I was perplexed. I asked her why she was so silent and if I interrupted a serious conversation. She simply shrugged and said, “We were giving each other company.”
I belong to a generation that’s constantly connected over WhatsApp, FaceTime, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Sometimes, my father and I text each other from inside the same house trying to finalise dinner plans. Other times, we’re both sitting on the dinner table and browsing content on myriad social media accounts. I can simply video call my therapist on days that I can’t meet her. My childhood friend in the US knows what the furniture in my bedroom looks like thanks to FaceTime.
But I still don’t know what it’s like to have someone on the other line being there for you without the pressure of any conversation, without an incessant need for sharing information. And our sophisticated smartphones can never compete with the cultural symbol the beloved landline has been for my family.
This story first appeared on Quartz.