I was narrating some adventure of my youth to younger colleagues of mine one day. When I got to the part where the ongoing flame of the time, left a message on my answering machine asking whether I was going to a common friend’s place and if he could meet me there, my colleague gasped in wonder – “You had an answering machine!” she said. And “people don’t really ask questions like that now, they’re more likely to send you a Facebook invite to an event, indicating that just maybe, they might be there too. It’s very non-committal.”
The relationship between the telephone and intimacy is as old as, well, the telephone. In my house, when the telephone rang, many competed to answer it. That tring tring tring madhur dhvani, as the Bangla band Mohiner Ghoraguli sang of it, signalled the possibility of delicious surprises. You had no idea who was on the other side. You hoped it was a long lost friend or someone you were crushing on. Even if it was just an aunt calling for your mum or the telephone exchange checking if your phone was now working, the sound of the bell, never failed to generate that zigzag thrill of anticipation.
The phone was the machine of romance, not love precisely , but the romance of mystery, the adventure of breaking boundaries. You may have been at home in body, but on a phone call you could be magically present in the world of your caller and your own at the same time. You had the bodily experience of listening to an actual voice, but the tantalising freedom to imagine the accompanying visual. It provided an aspect of fantasy that didn’t just make reality more bearable, it turned it into a song.
The ultimate symbols of this were the cross-connection, where you got randomly connected to someone else’s conversation, which you could illicitly, invisibly eavesdrop on; and the wrong number, which was the ancestor of the Internet chatroom.
One of my uncles met a girlfriend via a wrong number. Another relative traced a girl he overheard on a cross-connection, through clues he picked up in the conversation. Later they got married. When technology and its mix-ups beckoned coquettishly, they grasped the opportunity of an encounter outside their normal life with romantic abandon.
Later, the answering machine was the mainstay of people who lived by themselves. Reasons given for having one were practical. But the truth was, that when you came home, that blinking light, like the ringing phone, just for a minute held a possibility that something dramatic might happen, an addiction the missed call can’t quite compete with.
I am not sure if older technology seems more romantic just because it’s old, or because we knew it when it was young or because it knew us when we were young. But it is true that, when the phone rings today, you already know who it is, and when you don’t, it’s likely to be someone trying to sell you a loan. The thrill of the unknown is a little less. And SMS despite its intensive flirtatious use takes less commitment than a voice call. Talking apps, while fun, feel a little like talking dolls—they’ll say the same thing to anyone who presses the right button. It’s like no one’s attention is focused just on you.
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevi.com.
The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.