Hello, is there sound at the end of the tunnel? 

January 14, 2023 08:00 pm | Updated 08:00 pm IST

At the end of every year, magazines and publishers tell us what they consider the word of the year. Oxford Dictionary says that ‘goblin mode’ is the word of last year (although careful scrutiny will show that it is actually two words — so perhaps we have borrowed from this year’s word and won’t have one till next year). Collins Dictionary has voted for ‘permacrisis’.

My word of the year is ‘Hello’. And the reason is simple. It is the word I have spoken the most number of times; it is also the word I have heard the most often. Every time the cell phone rings, I pick it up and say, “Hello, can you hear me?” In response there is usually silence, followed by the tail end of the same sentence and a whole range of “hello” spoken in different keys, in different styles, in increasing severity of loudness. 

Often my hello and the caller’s hello clash in mid-air or cyberspace and either cancel each other out or assume greater volume and urgency. 

The meaning of “Hello” depends on the tone of voice. Hello, what’s this? (surprise). Hello hello (you are stepping on my toes). Hello (pleasant, neutral greeting). The hellos clashing in mid-air reek of desperation from both caller and receiver each of whom is hello-ing in anguish.

Speaking on the cell phone has become an exercise in exercising. First I have to find that one spot in the one room in the one part of the house where the call is relatively clear, where I don’t have to repeat myself with increasing loudness to be heard. And then I have to imitate those superheroes, the Rubberballman, the Elasticman or the Contortionistman, sometimes assuming postures that would get me arrested in some countries, before there is sound at the end of the tunnel. A human voice!

Years ago, when I lived in Dubai, I decided to take Arabic classes, but was confused when the tutor made me run and bend and touch my toes and so on. Perhaps you needed to be really fit to learn a language, I thought. This went on for some time before I realized it had been a printing error, so to speak. Instead of Arabic classes, I had accidentally signed up for aerobic classes. But I did appreciate getting fit.

And that’s what’s happening now. Speaking on the phone is making me fitter, ensuring I don’t have to spend huge amounts of money on yoga or any bendy-stretchy thing recommended by fitness gurus. The more you call me, the fitter I get.

But thanks to the virtual impossibility of getting a word in, I am beginning to feel as disconnected as the phone. My wish for the New Year is: a phone call where ‘Hello’ is not the most used word, and where I can sit back and talk to a friend without having to imitate a man on a flight preparing to crashland on water. Hello, hello, can you hear my prayer?

 (Suresh Menon is Contributing Editor, The Hindu)

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