“Electra telephono! Dmitri telephono! Theodore telephono!”
These were costly international calls. They used to come to the only general landline in the basement corridor of Fondation Hellénique inside the Cité Internationale Universitaire de Paris campus. Greek students would get calls from parents and friends in Greece. Whoever was in the corridor would lift the receiver and then knock on the door of the relevant person.
I lived my early years in France inside this 100-acre unique park for students and academics in southern Paris where the French government gave residential space to 40 countries. I had no official scholarship, so India House refused me a room. But Dr Georgoulis, a kind-hearted Sorbonne University professor in charge of Greek House, liked my paintings and accommodated me, a part-time art student.
I paid 300 francs per month as rent from the 500 francs I received working as a sweeper in a print shop. I could afford nothing else, so getting 10ftx8ft space within four walls, a 5ftx6ft bed, wash basin, chair, reading table, shared toilet and an outside kitchen, was a godsend. From my basement skylight I could see people’s legs walking around in the garden. Weekends were boisterously busy for our corridor public phone. I could never expect a call from my parents in their underprivileged economic situation.
Moreover, it wasn’t easy to call from India then. Only the affluent few had phones at home. For an international trunk-call booking you had to visit the telephone exchange, and a call could take hours or days in mid-1970s. Happily, I learnt several Greek terms of endearment and swear words listening to the continuous telephone chatter outside my room.
The idea of personal calls enamoured everyone except inventor Alexander Graham Bell, who patented the first practical telephone in 1876. He considered the phone an intrusion and refused to have one in his study! Science fiction writer and inventor Arthur C Clarke, most well known for the screenplay of Stanley Kubrick’s film, 2001: A Space Odyessy, actually predicted in 1959 that “the time will come when we will be able to call a person anywhere on Earth merely by dialling a number” and that this would be through a “personal transceiver, so small and compact that every man carries one”. In fact, his vision included global positioning so that “no one need ever again be lost”.
Since Scotsman Bell’s invention, different scientists have taken this technology forward. Originally you held two parts, for talking and hearing. Subsequently, it became the single talk-and-hear phone. In 1891, French engineer Ernest Mercadier invented in-ear headphones. Red public telephone booths on England’s streets have been iconic since the 1920s; a few such kiosks still exist. I’d barely used a phone before I left India in 1973.
France showed me the evolution of phone continued…