It is so irritating. As soon as you start concentrating on an important work, it rings. However melodious or sacred the ringtone, the immediate thoughts are sacrilegious. You ignore it thinking you’ll call later, but it is persistent. The person at the other end is desperate to talk to you at that very moment; afraid like Browning — “Who knows but the world may end tonight?”
One has to have a yogic nonchalance to disregard it. Three continuous calls and forcing yourself out of obstinacy, you pick up the phone, only to hear the caller informing you of the latest insurance policy! You switch the damn thing off and, in a couple of hours, people start calling on phones of the family members to enquire if everything was all right and, finding it so, disapprove of the phone being switched off. They can’t bear to be denied the right to talk to you whenever they feel like.
Speaking is our national pastime and the ever-reducing call-rates have only given a fillip to this voluble nation. No wonder, distribution of free cellphones has become one of the most important issues for our welfare government.
Mobile telephony is only a decade and half old. We could only wonder in our teens if it was possible to walk and talk. Our first glimpses of the cellphone were during the Sharjah matches, where the Sheikhs and the rich and famous moved around talking in the stadium. We crammed its theory for the Science and Technology section of the General Studies paper in the Civil Services Exams. And then, in the late 1990s, it was here, in our part of the world.
It was a costly possession, though. Not only making but even taking a call cost money. The handsets were big like walkie-talkies. As the call rates lowered a bit, people vied with one another for it and queued for hours for the sim card. Brandishing more than one phone was the symbol of importance and, during conversations, people would try to insinuate somehow that they possessed a cellphone.
But times have changed and how! As the cellphones spread to the hoi polloi, divulging the number only to the select few or, sometimes, not even keeping one is slowly becoming the fad among the higher-ups in the social echelons. Even the instrument has changed so much. Far from being a mere talking and texting tool, the cellphone has replaced the watch, calculator, compass, camera, radio, play-station, the desktop computer ... On the basis of its features, the contraption being a phone seems only incidental; some phones are so advanced that coaching centres might be set up in future to teach how to use the instrument.
Cellphones have become intrinsic to our lives but also are a big nuisance. As an article in The New York Times pointed out, they are leading to “inattentional blindness”, i.e., people look at their surroundings as they talk on their cellphones but do not register their presence. The abbreviated language not only suits the byte limitation of texting but is also contributing its own bit to lessening our span of attention.
The CUG phone that government officials are given are not to be switched off. Of course, one does marvel at the growth of awareness of rights among our people when one has to receive calls about seemingly the most trivial issues at the most unearthly hours, but there are times when the complaint/demand is so frivolous that one is tempted to hide oneself in the deepest dungeon, away from all networks.
Once my phone used to ring about 2 a.m. every morning, but I could never answer the call as by the time I woke up and picked it up, the machine would go off. On getting reprimanded by the higher-ups that I did not attend to calls, I stayed awake that night.
The caller turned out to be an important political personality of the district who was holidaying in Australia. How angry he was for my not attending to his calls? How dare I be so indifferent to a jan-pratinidhi? When my profuse apologies cooled him down he spoke about that ‘important’ work — a local club wanted to hold a cricket tournament and I was to be of all help to them!
Throughout my school days my report cards bore the sentence — ‘Very talkative in class,’ but cellphones have cured me of verbal diarrhoea; rather, the latest allergens.
(The writer’s email: firstname.lastname@example.org)