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Thursday, May 19, 2022

This Number is Not Reachable

The phone rings for a good 30 seconds. Time enough to lapse into a self-involved analysis of the affront that is your missed call.

Written by V Shoba | New Delhi |
April 3, 2011 11:52:47 pm

The cellphone may be ubiquitous,but many choose to do without one

The phone rings for a good 30 seconds. Time enough to lapse into a self-involved analysis of the affront that is your missed call. Ten years ago,you’d have dialled your friend’s fixed-line phone and hung up without ado when the call went unanswered. Cellphones allow no such elbow room. But as one website underlining the tenets of cellphone etiquette says: “Occasionally,we legitimately miss a call. If it’s a call we wanted to take,we’ll return it immediately.”

Most of us have embraced the profligacy of the cellphone,or at least,regard it as an acceptable ally. A cellphone subscription is a social contract. In return for the security of being constantly connected with our near and dear,we are obliged to make ourselves available at all times to colleagues,acquaintances,salesmen,and whoever else knows our 10-digit identity. But even as the number of mobile connections in India crosses the halfway mark of its population,some choose to stay out of reach.

Like Jaya Iyer,who runs the children’s centre at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in Delhi. “At one level,I don’t need to carry a cellphone. My family and friends know how to reach me if there’s an emergency. At another level,not having a cellphone is symptomatic of owning my time,and it’s the reason I am able to do so many things,” she says. Despite pleas by her friends — they even did a light-hearted cost-benefit analysis of not owning a phone and posted it on the Web — Iyer has steadfastly refused to buy a phone. “By now,my friends are reconciled to the fact that I won’t carry a cellphone. They have worked out their own strategies to get in touch with me—they know they’d have to plan in advance if they want to meet me,” says Iyer.

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At Koshy’s,a popular café on St Mark’s Road in Bangalore,Sateesh HS,floor manager with a TV channel and a theatre artiste,says a cellphone number is a “tag”. “I am uncomfortable with the idea of being tracked via satellite. Say,I want to go to Mysore and I call in sick,it is possible to trace my call and uncover my lie,” says the 48-year-old,only half-joking. Sateesh is no Luddite: he studied satellite communication systems and makes documentary films for children. “I am a private person. If I have a cellphone and don’t want to share my number with you,you will consider it inappropriate,” he says.

Sateesh says he makes and receives no more than 100 calls a month. “I like to meet people face-to-face,” he says. When we arrange to meet him at 11.30 am at Koshy’s,he is well ahead of time. “One of the side-effects of not having a phone is that you learn to respect others’ time. You know you can’t call and offer excuses like ‘I’m just round the corner and I’ll be there in a minute’,” he says. Instead of a phone,Sateesh carries an address book and coins in his pocket for accessing public phones. “Koshy’s is one of the last eateries in Bangalore to still have a pay phone inside the premises,” he says,pointing to the old-fashioned booth tucked behind the cashier’s counter.

Ravi K,a Koshy’s habitué and a former radio jockey,still operates by proxy when it comes to phone calls. “When someone wants to contact me,they call my friends at Koshy’s. I am usually here from 11 am till lunch. Today was bill payment day,so I got late,” he says. Ravi owns a cellphone that has,for many years,occupied a spot next to his fixed-line phone at his Shanthi Nagar residence. His college-going daughter checks his phone from time to time to delete text messages,which he never reads. Ravi is not a social recluse—he has 1,270 friends on Facebook and regularly replies to his email. “I just feel a phone is a burden to carry,and quite unnecessary,especially if your work doesn’t require you to carry one,” he says.

And yet some like Jaswinder Narang,general manager of Le Meridien,Pune,work without a mobile phone. Narang’s “obsolete,old phone” is switched off 95 per cent of the time. He conducts his everyday work on his laptop and “perfectly manages his life” without a gadget that went from being a luxury to a necessity for many. “I still return calls,meet people,and have never missed an appointment,” he says,attributing his accessibility to voice message services,message flashing systems in hotel rooms and his secretary. “If anyone leaves a message with our telephone operator,I return the call instantly. It’s not like people have to wait for three days to get hold of me,” he says.

For those tuned to the exigencies of modern life,waiting for someone to reach home and being within reach of a landline seem recklessly regressive. We have vague memories of such logistical delays and aren’t accustomed to accounting for them. “A lot of people complain that it’s difficult to catch me,” says professor Jaywant Arakeri,head of the mechanical engineering department at the Indian Institute of Science,Bangalore,offering an explanation for the several calls we had to make to his room and lab before we could reach him. Talking from his residence on a Saturday morning,professor Arakeri says that email is his preferred mode of communication. “Besides,my wife cannot keep track of me this way,” he jokes. His wife has a cellphone but they haven’t bought one for their 18-year-old son yet. “If he had a phone and didn’t answer,it would worry us more,” he says.

These are post-rationalisations. The foremost reason for not owning a cellphone is to be able to slow down and make the world move at one’s preferred time and pace — a power few can successfully wield today. MN Sharma,former chief architect of Punjab and Chandigarh,has managed to limit telephone conversations to slotted hours “unless there is an emergency”. “Without a cellphone,I have the liberty of calling who I want to and not get disturbed at odd hours,” he says.

For Sekhar Raghavan,director of the Rain Centre in Chennai,which works in the area of rainwater harvesting with the Tamil Nadu government,a fixed line is not a perfunctory phone that’s never answered. The 63-year-old,who only uses a cellphone while visiting his son in the US,has a caller ID on his home and office phones and makes it a point to return calls. “If you own a cellphone,people feel they can contact you any time. It’s a callous attitude,” says Raghavan,adding that government officials have,in the past,expressed their frustration at not being able to call him at will and even offered him a free phone. He hasn’t budged.

UV Singh,conservator of forests and head of the Lake Development Authority,Bangalore,is just as unapologetic. Ever since Singh and a group of environment officials were attacked by a gang,allegedly led by a corporator,for taking action against polluting a lake earlier this year,his family has been trying to persuade him to buy a phone. “I still don’t need one. When I travel,I am usually with others who have cellphones,” he says,looking up from a pile of papers at his office at the Pollution Control Board,Church Street,Bangalore. “The idea that cellphones promote efficiency is not really true. How were we working earlier? Now,people end up wasting much more time on the phone than they need to. This is not a fire department,there is no such urgency,” Singh says.

KR Sreenivas,a professor at the National Centre for Biological Sciences,Bangalore,says the only time one really needs a cellphone is while travelling or during emergencies. “I was visiting the UK and had an appointment with a professor. I was on time but the professor hadn’t come out and there was no way I could get in through the automatic doors without a pass. A cellphone would have helped,” says the 44-year-old,who borrowed his daughter’s cellphone for subsequent visits abroad. “I need my freedom,I cannot be chained to a cellphone all the time,” he says.

Those devoted to their phones say not having one is like leaving a stone intentionally unturned. “It’s a big cop-out. When the world operates at a certain pace,one should learn to move with it,or at least,to not slow down,” says Amith Ranjan,a software architect who lives in Whitefield,Bangalore,and carries three phones — a BlackBerry for work,an iPhone for keeping in touch with friends and family,and a Nokia smartphone with a Delhi SIM card for when he travels. “There are ways of not letting cellphones take over your life. You could choose not to give out your number freely,or resist upgrading to a Facebook-and-internet phone if all you want to do is make calls,” he says.

Thirty-year-old Anil Polat,a travel-blogger from Washington DC,says that while the internet has promoted the use of cellphones,the opposite has also happened. “I don’t use a cellphone. I use the internet for everything a phone can do and more. I use an iPod Touch as a WiFi device. Aside from a few hiccups,it’s easy enough for people to get in touch with me. Since everyone is online now,Skype and email are great for communication,” he writes,in an email from Bulgaria.

Every second,there are about 4.2 million people having a cellphone conversation. Many of them can’t imagine life without the gadget. The cellphone is an inescapable social device of our times. But it’s always possible to cut the connection.

With inputs from Nupur Chaudhuri and Sheveta Bhatia

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