Monday, January 17, 2011

One phone call

Alexander Graham Bell has been credited with the invention of the telephone. His patent was granted in 1876.
Almost five score years later, it became popular in Calcutta.

I am struck with wonderment to think that there used to be a time when homes did not have phones. I remember that only offices had phones and other public institutions. Once we left home. there was no contact between the family members. I was too young to realize why I would need a phone in the first place. Early in the morning, school started. Once in school, talking incessantly with fellow classmates more than sufficed my desire for speech. If friends refused to talk, there was always my sister. She couldn't escape my garrulity.

At that time, receiving a phone call only meant one thing. Bad news. After all, when you filled forms you were only asked for emergency contact numbers. I remember one incident that occurred with a friend of mine. Like me, her family did not own a phone at home. Only her dad was working and hence he had access to a phone connection.

A call was placed to his office. When Mr. Maiti finally came from his third floor work desk to the fifth floor to receive his call, he was not only panting but slightly agitated. His wife would never call him. Even at home, she spoke to him only if she had to. His daughter was in school. And it was his daughter, that he was afraid of. As a father, he loved his Shonali. But in all fairness, she wasn't the brightest kid around. In fact, using the word 'bright' for his daughter would be an exaggeration. Shonali had managed to re-learn two of her grades. Unlike US, where every child can be "special" and flunking could just be another effort to "learn better", Calcutta schools were ruthless. Not just in Calcutta, the India where I grew up, tended to treat their children with tough love. You were not "special" if you failed a class, you were downright stupid. The teachers and the students treated you likewise. It was a harsh and honest world.

"Hello, this is Shomen Maiti speaking", answered Shonali's dad. His heart was thumping loudly in his chest.
Static came through the other end. The connection was not clearly audible.
"Hello, Mr. Maiti, we are calling from your daughter's school", answered the handset.
Mr. Maiti's fears raised their ugly heads.
"What is this about?", he asked fearfully.
" Your daughter just had an asthma attack. She needs to go home. Our school nurse treated her but she is still very weak. Definitely in no position to be at school. You need to come and take her home. And Mr. Maiti may we also remind you that you need to be more patient with your child. Her asthma could be caused by mental stress. You need to take it easy on her. She may be dumb but repeating it daily does not do her much good."

Mr. Maiti was stunned. He stared at the phone he held in his hand.
As a father, he believed he had the right to treat his child the way he pleased. And he loved his Shonali. He was in no mood to accept unsolicited advice from a pontificating school clerk! His Bengali blood rose within his veins. His breathing became intense and labored. How dare they call him up and tell him what to do? In his anger for a stranger, he forgot about his own ill daughter. When he remembered, the line in his hand had already become silent.

"My Shonali...she is sick..", he murmured to himself.
Mr. Maiti was taken aback by the discovery of Shonali's asthma. He never knew she had it. How did it suddenly develop? Was this one of those things that his wife told him and he conveniently forgot? He questioned his memory. he did not have time waste, he had to leave.

Making some lame excuse about visiting a client, Mr Maiti set out from work. When he reached the school, he went straight to meet the Principal. Half an hour later, she was ready to see him.

"Yes what can I do for you Mr. Maiti?", asked the middle-aged martinet.
"I came to take my daughter home. Shonali had an asthma attack in class today. Your office just called me." Mr. Maiti explained himself.
The Principal gave him a worried look. She had not instructed her staff for placing a call to any any parent that day.
"We never called you Mr. Maiti and neither did Shonali fall sick. Who called you? Did you ask that person's name?"

Mr. Maiti hadn't asked the name. The process of identifying and seeking identification over phone had not yet been introduced. Unlike here, where every customer service call begins with, "I am Luther and how may I be of assistance?", the Calcutta I knew believed that the voice was sufficient recognition of oneself. When phones first came into vogue, people became busy talking. They scarcely listened.

Mr. Maiti demanded to see his daughter. Shonali was called away from the boring history class to the Principal's office. She celebrated escaping a dull history monologue. When she reached, she was surprised to find her father there. Without a word her father hugged her. With a sigh, he looked at her fondly. She could almost see his eyes watering.

A long bear hug later, he turned back at the staring headmistress.
"I want to take my daughter home."
The Principal nodded in agreement. This father-daughter duo definitely deserved a moment together.

Mr. Maiti soon realized that it was a prank call. But he also realized that he loved his daughter more than he despised her lack of intelligence. Stress could make her sick and knowing this, he forbade his wife and consciously stopped himself from reprimanding their only child too harshly. What happened as a joke that day could become the reality of tomorrow.
Shonali became a better student under the guidance of her surprisingly patient dad. She also became a worse spoilt brat.

A week later, she thanked the young clerk for the call he said he had placed earlier. After all he had done for her, she had started to like him.
May be there was even a spark there.
Those who knew her well at school, had named her "michkey shoitaan", a mischievous devil.

No comments: