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The numbers game


However far technology might race, this world will continue to bring forth people who apparently dial with their knuckles instead of their fingertips

Party Pooper But we also hardly ever get to eavesdrop on entertaining cross-talk on telephone Photo: PARTH SANYAL

Imiss cross-talk. Don't you? Phones in the old days used to provide such excitement but we were too busy complaining to notice. Now I'm almost nostalgic for the routine cross-connections that would begin with a babel of voices crying: "Who's this?" and end with all parties concerned commanding one another to "put the phone down". At some point in your life you were bound to overhear a boy and a girl saying absolutely nothing at all for an interminable length of time. "You say." "No, you say first." "Then what?" "Say something, no." This inspired conversation would proceed on the lines of "I saw you today, looking nice" (giggle-giggle) and "My mother has gone to temple." After a few minutes you would grow aware of yet another eavesdropper, one not as silent as you. A thorough spoilsport, he would contribute animal noises and rude remarks. The girl would snap, "Shut up, stupid fellow", and the boy would growl and make threatening sounds.

What with all these electronic exchanges springing up you don't get too many crossed wires, and the fear of caller ID keeps the heavy breathers at bay. In the old low-tech days, accurate dialling was no guarantee that the call wouldn't go astray. Today's errors are entirely manmade. However far technology might race, this world will continue to bring forth people who apparently dial with their knuckles instead of their fingertips. These numerically challenged phone-users will not only jab all the wrong buttons but when met with an unfamiliar voice — i.e., yours — will sound most insulted and demand, "Yaaru?" It drives me wild.

Last week a gruff voice asked me for Puttaiah. I snarled at him. This was after he had rung me three times in quick succession. The chap sneakily put his wife on the job — it could only have been his wife, for who else would submit to being made a scapegoat? The woman who called said "hal-ler" very nervously and waited for my reaction. I asked her, in words of one syllable, which number she wanted. Sure enough, the pair of them had been dialling nine double-zero for double-nine zero.

Rarely do you come away from a wrong-number call in a peaceful state of mind. One morning the phone rang and I chirped my usual "hello". (My unfailingly chirpy voice turns menacing only if you ask me several times for Puttaiah.) "Sollu-ma," said a cordial voice in Tamil. It was a warm old voice. A voice that belonged to a man who distributes peppermints among his grandchildren. I was tempted to ask after them but I merely repeated "hello", hoping he would recognise that I wasn't his daughter. "Mmm, sollu-ma," he continued affably. I had to regretfully tell him he had erred, and disconnect.

There are times when you wish people wouldn't dial the right number. You're exactly who they want to talk to but you don't know who they are. You must be painfully familiar, by now, with attempts at direct marketing by banks, clubs and credit card companies, but how's this for misuse of data base? Woman introduces herself: "Hello, I am calling from XYZ International School. Do you have any school-going children in your house, ma'am?" No, I say sharply. (Those who solicit business on the phone irritate me almost as much as those who desperately seek Puttaiah.) Undaunted, the woman asks, "Would you like to refer someone?"

Maybe what one needs is an Interactive Voice Response System. Imagine how simple life would be if your phone began to reel out instructions to callers: "You have reached the residence of Anita and Bharat. If you want to reach Anita, press 1. For Bharat, press 2. If you have a common message for both, press 3. If you have a message for the kids, press 4 to reach Chitra, 5 for Deepak, and 6 to reach both." Each number would branch out into a maze of other numbers. For instance, the moment the caller hits 3, he would be told, "If you are the dog's vet, press 1. If you're Chitra's or Deepak's teacher, press 2. If you are a friend, press 3." In a remarkably short period Anita and Bharat would have simplified their lives no end because they would have lost their entire circle of friends.

Civic authorities are quite taken up with IVRS and keep announcing "automatic" numbers. They expire peacefully after a while — remember the KPTCL number that used to provide details about "power outages" in your area? I still loyally dial 1952 for new telephone numbers although its success rate is only about 30 per cent. My "automatic gas booking" number was great while it lasted (which was about six months). Delivery within 24 hours guaranteed. Press 1 for new refill, 2 for leakages or other mechanical faults, 3 for any other complaint. In the end a voice would brightly pipe up: "This service is brought to you by NIE Technologies! We shape the winners of tomorrow!"

One day I pressed 3. "Oh!" said a surprised voice. "Bahushaha neevu yaavdo thappu number dial maadideeri." ("Perhaps you have dialled some wrong number.") I tried again. "Oh!" began the surprised voice, in effect telling me to get lost. I later found out the service had been disconnected.

A fallible human or a maddening machine — hard to say which is worse.

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