Doesn’t quite ring a bell

Ritu Kumar

Every phone booth of yore possessed a distinct whiff of romance, had a story when communication wasn’t as easy as it is today. It was a keeper of secret conversations and confessions. Many movies captured phone-booth moments and many real love stories bloomed into rapturous romance here.

For much of the 20th century, public call office (PCO) and STD booths saw their heyday: they were iconic, steadfast and a necessary installation of modern life, from bustling cities to small towns. But a booth now is a relic of a seemingly ancient civilisation. As the mobile phone use exploded and pay phone was increasingly linked to crime, the booths began to disappear. What was once a vital part of society has nearly gone extinct. Talking about phone booths in the presence of the new generation is reminiscing old songs of a bygone era.

I have candid memories of a phone booth. Whenever I was sent on an errand from home, I took a coin slyly and went to a booth to talk to my friend, with whom I had already fixed the time to talk. I used to rush there, stand in a queue, waiting eagerly for my turn. If the person inside the glass box took more than usual time, the next waiting in the queue opened the door without preamble, so one was forced to hang up and walk away, grumbling sheepishly, as others gave amused glances. Fond memories of those days make me chuckle — how I dialled triumphantly and gossiped while others awaited their turn. It reminds me of Aamir Khan’s scene in Dil Hai Ki Manta Nahin, where he haggles with his editor inside a pay-phone booth.

These booths have been active participants in joys and sorrows that families shared with dear ones, providing easy and user-friendly access to people to communicate in an emergency and otherwise. They enabled people travelling long distances to halt anywhere and call back home to inform of their well-being. The brainchild of telecom technocrat Sam Pitroda, the booth became the livelihood of many who opened PCOs. But with affordable mobile telephony, the PCO is in people’s pockets now. The few that one can find in small places look like historical monuments, dilapidated and deserted. Others are either shut down or have expanded to sell other goods. On our mobile phones we can call, WhatsApp, Google. Romance has turned into a textual relationship. Letters have been replaced by ‘smileys’ and other symbols.

Phone booths have gone now, perhaps to be found in a movie as a prop or in the new age preserved as a décor antique — an artefact of communication and conversation of a bygone era.

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