There was a time not too long ago (some three decades back) when having a phone connection was a big deal. Today, India might be having over a billion mobile subscribers, but back then, in 80s and 90s, even landline was a luxury only few could own.
I remember vaguely that a phone connection in those days cost about three thousand Indian rupees. Yes, it was a steep amount then, considering a lower middle-class household could be managed on that sum for a month. But that wasn’t the deterrent, but the time it took for the phone to get installed after registration!
MTNL those days ruled the roost in Delhi. In fact, because of its monopoly, there wasn’t any other choice as well, than to wait for three years, or maybe even longer. People would even bribe the telephone guys out on field. They were given the status of God, since Tendulkar hadn’t registered that suffix by then to his name.
Three years is a long time to wait. In fact, people who lived on lease, would shy away from registering, as address change process could take another three years. Not to mention the many visits to the telephone exchange office, and the compounding bribes.
Delhi had been a Punjabi city, and I’m sure only an enterprising Sardar could have thought about this innovative idea. You see, those were the days of neighbours bonding over every great celebration – Holi, Diwali, Independence Day, Navratras, New Years, Christmas, etc. And each day was celebrated together as well, over cooking together, sharing food, asking for salt or yogurt, children sleeping on the building’s terrace in the noon, sharing a laugh when electricity went off, playing cricket on the road, etc. So in the midst of sharing love, even phone numbers started getting shared. And it started proliferating like roaches in the kitchen.
It all started with neighbours making a short call to the close relatives. Then numbers were given to these relatives, then to offices, then to the distant cousins and relatives. Soon, friends also had the number. The process got complex each day, as the family which owned the telephone line didn’t receive much calls, but their neighbours did. The house was chaos, and the first-floor wallahs, second floor wallahs, adjacent ground-floor wallahs, and the Barsati wallahs, all were coming down (or going up, depending where the phone owners lived) to take their calls. It only got worse with calls coming at odd times too, from the US and Gulf!
Screaming on top of their lungs, the Phone Owners would call the respective family, and the whole neighbourhood would know there’s a call for them, which would be followed by heavy footsteps thumping down the stairs, yelling on phone as it was an ISD (Trunk call as it was called then). As soon as they were finished, the phone would ring again, for the other neighbours, and the Phone Owners would start screaming again. The smart owners called smart electricians to fix the problem, by having a personal bell connection to all the floors from their floor. So they wouldn’t have to scream their lungs out.
And just when this problem was given a solution, another one surfaced. The neighbours, too smart to be chided, started printing the Phone Owner’s numbers on their visiting cards too! It was referred to as PP number. Now god knows what PP number stood for. When I asked my family, they told me it was called Padosi Phone. I laughed my guts out on knowing this, as it was too funny to be printed on cards of even senior executives and small time businessmen.
On further poking, I got many variants to Padosi Phone. Equally funny, they were abbreviated as Party Line (as in Multiple Users), Paas Padoos, Particular Number, Phone Passby, Pay Phone etc. None satisfactorily justifying its abbreviation. But for the record, I too would go with Padosi Phone.
Apparently the Padosi Phone got so famous that even businesses were conducted over them. The family which owned the phone also kept a domestic help, because neighbours didn’t leave as their call ended. Sharing a cup of tea has been an intrinsic tradition of the city, and the neighbours had to be entertained. The house was soon a cafe as well, dishing out easy snacks and teas and cold water. And if the family owned a Television, then you can only imagine what would have happened. Nevertheless, bonding that these families shared being just neighbours cannot be seen today. People keep in touch through a short call on festivals, or sharing forward jokes on WhatsApp. We no longer have time for sweet idleness, to sit with the neighbours and have a tea. Hopefully, we’ll have an App someday that will bring back some glory of the past. “Meet Thy Neighbours” might make us know our neighbours, and have tea with them, at least virtually!