Writer's Block Society

When my phone, thankfully, was also not my wallet

Eight o’clock in the morning: I was on the train from Amritsar to New Delhi, travelling in an air-conditioned coach that had about 50 other passengers, including a young medical student seated right next to me.

Vendors walked up and down the aisle, selling snacks and soft drinks — the best part of travelling in an Indian train — but this morning, I took no notice of them. I also ignored the famous Punjab countryside that unfolded outside the window. You cannot, after all, relish the beauty of an uninhabited island if you are marooned there: your eyes would be fixed on the sea, looking for a passing ship or boat. And right now, I was a marooned man. No one could reach me, I could reach no one. The phone in my pocket was dead.

It had gone dead, suddenly, at the unearthly hour of two in the morning, when I seemed to be the sole inmate — certainly the sole inmate awake — at the BSF officer’s mess near the Wagah border. In another three hours, a taxi was to pick me up and drop me at the Amritsar railway station, where I was to board the New Delhi-bound Shatabdi Express, departing at 6.15 a.m. At New Delhi, I was to be received by an old friend, who had planned to take me out for lunch before dropping me at the airport in time for the 5.40-p.m. flight to Chennai.

The phone, alas, had everything: my train ticket, my flight ticket, and all my contacts, including the numbers of the taxi driver and the friend who was to meet me at New Delhi station.

The taxi driver, fortunately, was still waiting for me outside the campus, even after having found my phone switched off despite repeated attempts to call me. When I told him about the tragedy, he calmly said, “Don’t worry. Use my phone.” All I wanted was to reach a handful of people who really mattered, just to let them know that they should not worry in case they could not reach me — but who to call? I did not know a single number by heart. Everything was stored in my mobile, not in my mind.

So I called up the only number I knew by heart — the landline at my Kanpur home — and as I had expected, the phone was off the hook. Someone had told my father many years ago that the Internet worked faster if the phone was kept off the hook and he sticks to the advice. The driver then suggested I put my SIM card in his phone — why didn’t I think of this before! — but his phone, alas, refused to read my card.

I profusely thanked him anyway as he dropped me at the station, where I found that the Shatabdi Express was already gone: it departed at 5.15 and not 6.15. “There is another train that leaves at 6.15, maybe you got confused,” a helpful TTE told me. He was right.

I ran to the ticket counter to get a ticket for the 6.15 train, but the queues were so long that I did not see myself making it to any of the windows before noon. I returned to the TTE and begged him to somehow put me on the 6.15 train. He said softly, “It will cost you Rs. 700. Is that okay?” When I nodded in gratitude, he said, “Once the train comes, occupy C2 42.” The train pulled in only at 7.30.

And now I was in C2 42 — a marooned man. The only one who could rescue me was the medical student seated next to me. But I found it embarrassing to scream for help without winning her trust. So I asked her if she had already operated upon cadavers. I chose to use the word cadaver, the medical term for a dead body. She not only replied in the affirmative but also excitedly opened her phone to show me pictures of cadavers she had recently worked on. We discussed death for a while, before I told her about my plight and asked her, “Mind if I use your phone for a moment to check my Facebook?”

Facebook instantly transported me from an uninhabited island to civilisation. But I also realised that nobody — other than the friend coming to receive me at New Delhi station — had wondered why I was not reachable. At yet at the same time, total strangers — including the bribe-taking TTE — had formed a human bridge to ensure that I reached Chennai.

Today, when I look back at this episode, I wonder: what if my phone was also my wallet — as Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants it to be?

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Printable version | Feb 23, 2020 4:53:29 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/When-my-phone-thankfully-was-also-not-my-wallet/article16783910.ece

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