When cellular phones were introduced in India, they quickly became the ultimate status symbol. They were astronomically priced, so only to a few ‘movers and shakers’ in society owned them. My first ‘close-up’ with one of those early cell phones in Mumbai happened one night when I had gone to watch a play with a friend. As we were filing into the theatre with a crowd, a strident ring broke the silence. A man standing just ahead of me pulled a cell phone out of his pocket with a flourish, and boomed an excited ‘hello’ into it. After looking around at his hapless audience with a satisfied smile, he began a conversation in a loud, stentorian tone. As his glib tongue tossed off references to urgent business deals worth millions, he gestured energetically with his free hand.
“ I’m sure this is not a genuine call,” I muttered angrily to my friend.
“Of course it’s not!” she whispered back. “Don’t you know that there are people who will call you, for a fee, if you want to be seen talking on your new cell phone?” I didn’t know, of course, but my aversion to cell phones began right there. I decided firmly that I would never own one. So, when my own eager offspring eventually acquired their own cell phones, I ignored them pointedly.
Then, as the telecom revolution swept through India during the next few years, cell phones became inexpensive and common. Every cab driver and panwallah possessed one, and even our plumber stuffed one jauntily in his pocket. People began to ask me regularly, “apka mobile number kya hai?” My haughty reply that I did not own a mobile because I didn’t believe in them, was always greeted with stares of utter amazement that quickly turned into embarrassed looks of sympathy. Everyone knew that the only people who did not own cell phones were those who were too poor to buy one, or those too stupid to know how to use one. Whichever category I fell into, I merited a pitying stare!
It was my maternal instinct of wanting to communicate more with my teenaged children (or hound them, as they put it succinctly) that made me finally decide to own a cell phone. I broached the topic gingerly one night at dinner. My daughter was absolutely delighted at this change of heart. She offered, rather uncharacteristically, to accompany me and her father, to buy my first cell phone. At the store, I was goggle eyed at the variety of cell phones displayed. As the salesman prattled on about the features of each model, I eyed the thick instruction manuals that accompanied each phone nervously, and shrank back, dismayed. When my daughter saw my hesitation, she unveiled what was obviously a well thought out plan.
“I think all these phones are too complicated for someone like mummy who’s mentally challenged as far as technology goes,” she said earnestly to her father. “ She’ll be better off using my phone. It’s a very simple model that they don’t make any more. She’ll be comfortable with it. I can have the new phone.” I agreed to this idea without demur, and my daughter happily chose a tiny new cell phone equipped with a bewildering array of buttons and features.
My education in using a cell phone seemed to start swimmingly. I memorized my new ten-digit number diligently, and picked out a favourite tune, ‘Waltzing Matilda’ as my ring tone. After I learnt how to make and receive a call on my phone, I became rather complacent. Perhaps I had been mistaken in thinking that using a cell phone was beyond me – maybe the complicated instructions were all just hype? My snugness soon received a jolt when I made blunder after blunder while using my phone. My mistakes ranged from common ones like forgetting to charge my phone, and setting off happily on an overnight a trip minus my charger, to sublime ones caused by my utter ignorance. I did not realize, for example, that the keypad of my phone had to be locked before I stuffed it into my bulging handbag. As I moved around, I was supremely unaware that my phone, sandwiched between numerous odds and ends, was merrily dialing away the numbers stored on it. Since in those days, most of the numbers stored on my phone were those of my children and their friends, this caused uproar at home. My offspring were enraged at the inconvenience that my ignorance caused them, and mortified at the embarrassment of having to explain to their startled friends why their mother was ringing them repeatedly without uttering a word!
I quickly learned to lock the keypad of my phone, but other blunders continued. Once, when I came home, I was surprised to be confronted by an angry family.
“Why didn’t you answer your phone?” they chorused furiously.
“But you didn’t call me,” I replied, truly puzzled. My daughter dug into my handbag immediately and pulled out my cell phone.
“Look!” she exclaimed, “Six missed calls!” As I stared at my cell phone in bewilderment, it rang, and I listened to it, completely stupefied. It sounded completely different from usual!
“Why does my phone sound so different?” I asked worriedly.
“Because I changed your ring tone,” my daughter explained brightly. “Everyone changes their ring tone regularly. I change mine every week. Now yours is the theme from Titanic! Didn’t you recognize it?” she asked me.
“Why did you change my ring tone?” I shrieked in outrage. “I didn’t answer my phone because I didn’t even realize that it was my phone that was ringing. I thought it was someone else’s phone! Change it back at once!” My daughter obliged with a resigned shrug, and years on, my ring tone is still Waltzing Matilda! But sometimes, even Waltzing Matilda wasn’t enough to catch my attention, so my daughter decided to switch my phone to ‘vibrate’ mode. I was delighted with this idea – when my handbag began to writhe like a live thing, it was a signal for me to dive into it and holler a triumphant hello.
The advent of SMS’s brought me fresh challenges. My children were determined that I should learn how to SMS them, so that they could hide from their friends the ignominious fact that the numerous calls they received were not from eager admirers but only from their anxious mother! My daughter was my SMS teacher, and we got off to a disastrous start. She wrote a few ‘sample’ SMS’s for me to see first. I read,
K B DER AT 7
HI HW R U 2DAY?
“What on earth is this?” I asked staring at the paper, completely nonplussed.
“These are SMS messages,” my daughter said, in the slow deliberate tones she might adopt when speaking to a moron.
“What do they mean?” I asked, my voice rising shrilly in anxiety at the thought of having to puzzle out more incomprehensible instructions.
“Read them, and you’ll understand,” my daughter replied calmly. “The first one says ‘I’m good’. The next one says, ‘OK, be there at seven’. The last one says ‘Hi! How are you today?’ Aren’t they short and sweet?”
“Short and sweet?” I exploded. “Why they’re simply atrocious!”
“No one bothers about spelling, punctuation and grammar when sending SMS’s,” my daughter explained. “But if you want, you can specialize in ones with perfect spellings and grammar,” she added sarcastically.
“ I will,” I replied grimly.
My early attempts at sending SMS’s soon ran into trouble. One day, I tried to send my daughter a message asking her to stop off at the dhobi’s shop on her way home. But instead of the word ‘dhobi’, the word ‘finch’ kept appearing on my screen instead. After several tries, I gave up in rage, and stomped off to the errant dhobi’s shop myself.
I confronted my SMS teacher angrily later.
“There’s something wrong with my phone,” I whined. “I’m just not able to type the word dhobi on my phone.”
My daughter giggled. “That’s because your phone has an inbuilt dictionary in it,” she said and the word dhobi is not in it!”
“But I need it to be there,” I retorted indignantly. “So what do we do now?”
“Switch off the dictionary,” she replied with a laugh.
I’m still learning to use many of the features on my cell phone, and bloopers are still plentiful. But all in all, we’re partners now, even though it’s not a perfect fit! During my son’s first trip to Europe, my cell helped me keep tabs on him, and bark out instructions as he backpacked from one city to another.
“I remember the days before Mummy had a cell phone,” he reminisced later. “We didn’t realize then that we were living in utter bliss!”
This piece was written over fifteen years ago, when India was just on the cusp of the mobile revolution. Though I've changed my cell phone several times during the past decade, not much has changed for me. I am still 'technologically challenged', as I've explained in this poem I wrote last year.
MY SMART PHONE IS SMARTER THAN ME
My old mobile phone stopped working a few weeks ago.
Clutching it in my hands, to the repair shop I did go.
The repairman shook his head, and told me with a sigh,
“This mobile phone’s life is over – a new one you must buy.
A smart phone is undoubtedly the best one for you –
There’s just nothing that a smart phone can’t do!”
But when I tried eagerly, to make my first call,
I found that I couldn’t work my smart phone at all.
Its touch screen was locked, and I couldn’t remember the key,
To open my smart phone which was so user unfriendly.
I couldn’t figure out how to send sms and e-mails too,
I was so dismayed that I didn’t know what to do.
My snazzy new smart phone seemed to be,
Determined to confuse and confound me.
As I struggled to use it, I let out a mournful cry,
“Why did my dear, old faithful mobile phone have to die?”
This poem was published in 'The English Marvel' Coursebook 4, (2015) published by
Madhubun Educational Books, a division of Vikas Publishing House, New Delhi.
Please do not reprint this poem without getting prior permission from the publisher.