Thursday, 2 August 2012

Indexed Stories - I

Having spent most of my ‘salad’ years as a phone-less designer, long conversations with my ears stuck to it never became a habit. In case someone called me and started yak-yakking away, my ears and hands became clammy and in the end I had to wipe the phone and then my ears and then my hands and then the phone again before I could replace the receiver back on the cradle! The phone would therefore carry much of the user’s sweat and gradually lose its sheen. This was actually a strict no-no, as the telephone was a status symbol and the user’s socio-political and economic power was directly proportional to the number of phones he or she displayed on the office table – they were like stars on an army officer’s epaulette! Great care therefore had to be taken to maintain these symbols of accomplishment. This resulted in the arrival of small time entrepreneurs who dedicated their lives as professional phone maintenance people. They arrived at regular intervals and cleaned up the phone, polished and perfumed them. You could opt not to have the local “Aguru” scent and provide your own smuggled and highly suspect version of “Royal English Leather”.

So great was the demand for telephones even  as early as the late 40’s that the Calcutta Telephone Company foisted the first eye-sore on this city – the stately looking Raj-era Dalhousie Institute building on the south of Lal Dighi was demolished in 1950 to build the ugliest monstrosity ever known - the Telephone Bhawan! The building is so uncouth that I refuse to include a picture of it here, lest it compromises the aesthetics of this space!

The Dalhousie Institute that was demolished in 1950 to build the Telephone Bhawan.

The “March of the Demolition Brigade” continued unabated after that. The question that bugs me most is “Whose city is this anyway? And why do we always elect philistines to high office?” Over time, telephone exchanges sprang up all over the city and they were all singularly large and ugly - as ugly as the Calcutta Telephone Directory! I searched the internet and found some interesting examples of Telephone Directory cover designs. I am sharing them with you.

Telephone Directory covers.
Let me now return to the “Telephone Diary” or as in the local lingo “Telephoner Khata”.

When one starts a second or a third diary for phone numbers one starts with the first page of A and re-enters a few names from the preceding diary. The first name therefore is always someone that you need to keep in touch with most or maybe a close friend. Both were true in my case. My best friends, as well as, my detractors feature in A! Sheer coincidence? I do not know.

The first page of my first diary had Adhip Ghosh, Askok Bhowmick, Aloke Sengupta, Aloke & Rita Basu, Aditya & Mamata Basak. The second page had Amit Sen. But, Altair Services (Upanita Sen’s firm), Abhik Mukhopadhyay, Artistique (Arundhuti Banerjee’s firm), Asit & Shukla Poddar appear much later. (Some names have been changed).

In the second diary Amit Sen, Abhik Mukhopadhyay, Alok & Rita Basu, Atanu & Minakshi Roy, Aditya Basak, Ashok Bhowmick, Dr. Arun Chowdhury and Arundhuti Banerjee appear in the beginning and in that order. Some of the earlier names were omitted and a few new names had been added. There obviously had been some realignment of relationships and we had begun to need a doctor too.

In the third diary the names have held their respective positions, except that Asit & Shukla Poddar reappears but had fallen behind and Aloke Bose and Rita Bose had been entered separately. Before you jump to conclusions let me tell you that they were a happily married couple. The separate entries were needed to accommodate their respective cell phone numbers. Oh! The cell phone – how it separates couples! But, then again Aloke Basu’s name had been struck off! You are wrong again. Alokeda passed away after a bout with cancer.

The first name in my first diary never ever reappears. It was permanently dropped and was a fall-out of my handing over my designing business to my erstwhile employees in 1991. Things started going wrong right from the very beginning and in the end, around mid 1993 - greed won over pragmatism. It also marks the beginning of a new life for me, which was when I once again re-appeared as a practicing visual artist after more than a decade. I tried to bury my past (found out much later that it was impossible to do so)!

Among all the names in my telephone diaries, some remain with me even today. Their phone numbers have changed many times in between and needed to be scratched out and re-written. Some of these relations go back to when I was yet to finish school. These are friends who were always eager to help me and continue to play an active role in my professional and personal well-being. Although I call them up only when I need something, they have never grudged me that. I always tell people that my friends are my life-line! Listing these names would be too gross – it would demean these relationships. There are others that have been added to my current diary. I meet new people regularly and I do make friends by the dozens!

With technology progressing by leaps and bounds, the telephone ceases to be a status symbol of the rich and powerful. The instrument has been democratised – which is all very good, but, the general obsession with it is amazing! My reaction to this phenomenon resulted in a work that I did in 2006.

 "Promoting verbal abuse" ink and water colour on paper.

The other fallout of this democratisation was the death of the art of writing letters. More about that in the next post…