Kalkatta Chronicles is about a world, a personal world of characters that were so deeply enmeshed, so
regular in our daily lives that we noticed them only when they were absent or when they began to fade.
These characters came in a wide range of encounters which included everyday habits, peculiar accents,
odd signs, customs and traditions and of course people. But if one looked carefully, there was a somewhat
subtle but common thread that ran across each of these characters.
Their story lay in hybrid; in mutation.
Kalkatta represents a slice of the city that had both wittingly and unwittingly borrowed from the
British and the Bhodrolok but also could not help adding some of their own migrant seasonings to
their borrowings, resulting in flavours that were completely fused and a social web that was
This Kalkatta had learnt to adopt and come to love jhaal and jhol and were past masters at
managing gondogol. They called for a chota peg at clubs and were addressed by orderlies as
memsahib. But there were hints of hybrid too: they opted for a meetha-saada paan that came to be
known everywhere as Kalkatta meetha, beckoned their chauffeurs as Driver ji and referred to their
female domestic help as Ayah didi. They went to schools that were English medium, convent or
missionary, lived in paras but conversed with each other at home in Hindi and even Marwari.
Their’s was a trilateral world that thrived in perpetual fusion.
Many of these nuances are now hard to find. With technology having seeped into our every
breath, dissolving boundaries and identities like never before and instant being the only pace of
time understood, many of them have faded into oblivion.
My idea here though, is not to lament change or indeed look at a world and an order gone by
with rose-tinted glasses. Neither is it to compare one world with another. It is only to recall,
share and reflect upon a microcosm that came into being by a collision of cultures; a world that
often took the mundane, the ordinary to the extraordinary and created lasting impressions.
A microcosm called Kalkatta.
Other than Hindi film villains who were shown armed with a row of them in striking colours, regular
households had only one such device that came in solid black and more often than not, occupied a
designated spot in the drawing room.
This prized device called the telephone, comfortably served not just the entire family, but also its guests,
visitors, neighbours, servants—pretty much its entire ecosystem. Families having more than one such
device were the bungalow kinds with plaques like ‘Niwas’ or ‘House’ etched on their grand gates.
Placed on a glass-topped table, our phone would stay coyly covered with a white crocheted cloth and was
regarded as a serious device, meant for brief, purposeful communication or an exchange of important
Whether the exchange could take place or not, however, depended on the health and mood of the device
at hand including its parentage, the telephone exchange. Though physically it was quite sturdy, its body
made of heavy metal and its receiver good enough to give someone a tight whack, its constitution seemed
to be somewhat fragile. As a result, on days that were marked even by the lightest showers or a hint of
thunder, its wires and connection would pack up, leaving it ‘dead’. In many ways, the health of the
telephone was a surer weather forecast than the announcements made by the Alipore abo-hawa daftar.
Various kinds of cajoling would be tried to bring it out of its comatose existence. Wires would be tugged
and pulled at and its vitals would be repeatedly clicked and checked so as to get even a faint murmur of a
dial tone—a rather reassuring base buzz that whirred on. Sometimes the pulling and tugging worked and
the dronish dial tone was heard again but more often than not, one had no such luck. The phone would
be declared as dead as a doornail. Sometimes the malaise would have affected not just one individual line
but an entire telephone exchange, leaving many connections in that neighbourhood, dead. Of course, it
was another matter that there were men employed and dedicated to exclusively deal with telephone woes
through the year. Their lives revolved around the labyrinthine corridors of the mighty Telephone
Bhawan—submitting documents, filling out forms, paying bills, making applications and so on. These
were men who had special powers of bringing back the dead to life.
However, on days that the phone worked, matters were different. It sat quite proudly next to the single
largest book of the household—the telephone directory, a repository of an alphabetical listing along with
corresponding phone numbers of all individuals, households and commercial establishments that had
telephone numbers to their names. People and establishments not finding their names in the directory
weren’t considered to have made the cut.
Every member especially the women also tended to maintain their own personal telephone diaries. These
would be small pocket-sized notebooks that lasted them several years and would fit into their personals
quite effectively. Most of the numbers carefully enlisted in their own hand in these diaries would be of
relations from their mother’s side. The men did not bother with personal diaries. Their treasured numbers
often came printed on visiting cards and they had devised an untidy but an effective way of keeping them
quite handy, right next to the telephone. Every other weekend, they would simply unload the visiting
cards from their briefcases and tuck the important ones under the glass panel on which sat the telephone.
These cards then came to occupy the table top for months and in the process the companies they
represented became a household name—Larsen & Toubro, Ellenbarrie, Jardine Henderson, Andrew
Yule, BOC, Garden Reach Shipbuilders, Tisco, Burn Standard, Indian Tobacco, Hukumchand Jute Mills
and many others.
Men usually utilised the device in the mornings. Speaking in Bengali, they would generally introduce
themselves by their family name on the phone. ‘Newar bolchi Sir,’ was one of the first expressions I heard
and picked up in Bengali. Every single person who came to the phone also had his or her own
characteristic way of uttering hello. Depending on their mother tongue the ‘hello’ sounded either
Marwari, Bihari or Bengali, the greeting’s English origin having been long hijacked.
My grandmother who had never seen the sight of a classroom in her life and had come into our family
when she was only twelve years old, had taught herself to memorise all the phone numbers she
needed—about ten or twelve of them. She would narrate these to any one of her bahus in her signature
style, breaking down the 5–6 digit phone number in two’s so that they could dial it for her. It helped that
numbers too ranged from being five to six digits only. Some of us wanted to be of help, but were quite
useless until we reached a certain standard, as we didn’t know numbers beyond twenty in Hindi and she
couldn’t narrate them in any other tongue.
The number dialling request was one that even came laced with incentives—a rare postage stamp for our
collection or some such carrot. Our elders would give us a number to dial and then go back to whatever
they were doing. They knew that it would be a good half an hour or more before our efforts would bear
any fruit. The exercise entailed the wheel like circular dialler needing rotation six times for the number to
be dialled once and the process to be repeated infinitely before a ring could be heard at the other end.
More often than not, the number was always ‘engaged’. The success of a ring however was celebrated
joyfully, as we would holler from the drawing room to other the end of the house, ‘mil gaya...’ or I’ve got
through, to summon the concerned person to drop everything and come immediately. The holler would
be even more animated and effusive if the concerned number was an out of city one, meaning if the call
was an STD (Subscriber Trunk Dialling) one.
The STD calls were reserved for special people and special occasions only. An informal announcement of
sorts was made before an STD number was attempted to be dialled so that all concerned members could
congregate to say hello and at least hear the person’s voice on the other end of the line. The usual and
cheaper route of making out of station calls was through trunk dialling. One had to dial a three-digit
number which was 180 and wait for an operator to answer. This operator, usually a Bengali-speaking lady,
took down all the necessary details needed for booking the call, including PP or particular person,
meaning she should not connect the call if that particular person was not available even if the line did go
A ‘booking’ was invariably followed by anticipation. Sometimes, the booking would come through fairly
quickly but at other times, days would pass until one was forced to give up hope and re-book a call or opt
for the STD route. Therefore, even a trunk call was a significant affair and though it lasted only for a few
minutes, it carried with it a measure of excitement. The operator who stayed on line throughout and was
privy to such conversations, promptly came to life as the call neared its three-minute duration and
enquired if one wanted to end it or continue. In either case, she would always be greeted by a ‘Dhonnobad
Didi’ at the end of the call.
The smarter amongst us would be given the task of booking a trunk call whereas the more perseverant
was assigned with dialling a local number.
The painstaking process of getting connected may have therefore been partially responsible for people
raising their voices as soon as they as much as held the receiver. Throats would be cleared before
embarking on an outstation call so that they could go full throttle. I think some of them even secretly
believed that longer distance calls required a greater decibel for the voice to be carried the longer distance,
a practice that surfaces every now and then even today on cellular technology.
Of course, no amount of raised voices could help in tackling the network getting entangled leading to a
‘cross connection’. This was a commonplace scenario where a completely unknown pair of voices carried
out their conversation as you endeavoured to have yours. Cross connections had a way of testing your
focus—could you stay focussed on your own conversation while strangers spoke alongside? The choice in
such a scenario was a Hobson’s one. One could either choose to ignore the strange voices and continue
with the call or hang up, which came with the risk of not getting through again. Sometimes, I heard our
seniors reach out to the other voices, requesting them to leave the line; imploring them that theirs was the
more serious of the two calls. ‘Dada, apni rekhe din na... aamar call ta khoob dorkari!’ If lucky, such requests
would get honoured and the line would clear up. At other times, there would be an argument over who
had dialled and got through first and the more resilient caller would end up continuing with his call.
The phone was a device used almost exclusively by elders. Children getting a phone call was an absolutely
rarity. If we had to make a phone call, a full enquiry was conducted first—who was the call to, what was it
for and finally what were the contents of the conversation. However, our roles assumed some importance
each time there was a call for a neighbour or guest, where we had to run, find the concerned person in a
jiffy and ensure that he came to the line. It was perfectly acceptable that our phone number was given out
by our neighbours and theirs by us. In fact, the main door which was left ajar through the day saw all
kinds of people walking in and out just to receive phone calls. It was all well understood and
What were frowned upon were idle conversations or a purposeless call. None of the elders could fathom
the need to talk to a friend who we had just spent half a day with at school or college and would be
meeting only the next day again. What could possibly be so important that could not wait for the next
day? Chatting on the phone was reckoned to be a bad habit and a waste of time. Many of us therefore,
warmly greeted the mushrooming PCOs where one could feed a coin and make a non-prying call.
One of the highlights of visiting the family’s official and commercial quarters in Dalhousie was seeing the
number of telephones in action. There were at least two and sometimes even three such devices on every
table. The tables having multiple telephones were usually occupied by the senior males of the clan. The
operator, a mild mannered bhodrolok who sat for years dialling and transferring calls seemed to be by far
the busiest and most important officer of the establishment. Office after office on every floor resonated
with the un-orchestrated chorus created by typewriters, rotary phones and telephone rings as pendulum
clocks marked the hours till 5 pm every working day.
The business of procuring a new phone line was nothing short of a test of one’s character. Parchment
upon parchment had to be inked, palms had to be gently greased and many queues suffered before there
could even be a ray of hope. After months of waiting however, when a new connection and a brand new
phone box did enter the household, it would almost be like welcoming a baby into the family. Bakshish
would be doled out generously sometimes accompanied by sweets and at least a few members would
break into a joyous celebration.
It was on one such occasion when the wait had been particularly laborious and the case had dragged on
unendingly, that our collective sense of euphoria on getting a telephone connection was so profound that
my brother broke into poetry, penning a poem for the occasion!
He had appropriately titled his verse ‘Trrring Trrring!’