When I moved to a tea garden twenty years ago, it dawned on me that life as I'd known it would change for ever. We had no telephone, to start with. There was no way I was going to be able to hear my parents' voice, for who knows how many months! That is something to think about in these days when we have daily chats with children who live far away.
In 1986, Rajiv Gandhi was the Prime Minister of India and he was farsighted enough to realise the role and importance of telecommunications. What we have today is definitely the result of a process initiated by him. Still, it all took some time.
In 1986, our little Birpara town, the town closest to Birpara Tea Garden where we lived, had a telephone exchange, and one or two telephones in each garden in the district. The Manager's bungalow had a phone with a two digit number. So did one of the Assistants' bungalows. It was something we all marvelled at; a telephone in the Assistant's bungalow. The number was 86. That phone never rang. I dont think anyone ever put a call through it during our three years in Birpara. It had an extension in the Joteswar bungalow which was located furthest away from the factory, where the Assistant who looked after the Joteswar Division lived. The extension phone was, in one sense at least, a cordless phone!
Many years ago, a Division Assistant who'd grown fed up of Burra Saab's habit of giving him repeated calls on the extension line yanked the instrument good and hard, and pulled it out of the socket. And there that phone lay ever since, with not a cord connecting it to anything anywhere in the bungalow. One could carry that phone around and use it as a stage prop. It speaks for the remarkable solidarity among the Assistants who came on transfer to Birpara that not one of them ever attempted to get that phone fixed.
I survived about a year of garden life without a telephone. I didnt actually lose my mind or start hearing voices in my head or anything. Our elder daughter was born in Delhi, where I spent some months. The news was conveyed to a clerk in Birpara Tea Garden office over a crackly trunk line and he sent a note to my husband. We could not speak to each other over the phone at all. We wrote letters, those days, maybe four and five in a week.
The day my father died, the news that he was seriously ill was conveyed by telephone from Delhi to a shop in Siliguri which acted as a receiving centre for news for all the company's gardens. They sent a messenger to Birpara and the senior assistant rode around the garden on his bike until he found my husband and told him what had happened. We took the next plane out of Bagdogra, which was the following morning, without any telephone communication with home at all, not realising that we would reach Delhi only after my father's funeral. The news that he'd died twenty four hours ago was something I heard when we called home on arrival at Delhi airport.
Our next garden, Bagracote, offered a slightly better deal by way of telephone communications. We had graduated to three digit numbers by then. We could go to the garden office, which was Oodlabari 254, and wait there for trunk calls which family would make to us.
By 1992, STD had come to stay. The most modern exchange in the Dooars area was Banarhat, and our friend in that area had an STD phone in his bungalow. He actually chatted on it with his sisters who lived in America. We could not get over the audacity of it.
I was hospitalised in Siliguri for a week early that year, and the family, spread all over the world, was grateful, in those moments of anxiety, that Siliguri had STD. Cheerful Malayalee and Nepali nurses at the hospital would happpily carry messages to my bedside from America, Singapore, Chennai and Mumbai. The further the place where the call originated, the more chirpy the messenger would be!
In 1993, we moved to the first ever Manager's bungalow of our experience. It had a phone that worked, with only a three didgit number, true, but a number that allowed us to make trunk calls through the exchange. For the first time in seven years I could call family and chat. Over a real, working, cordless phone.
Mal Bazaar, the closest thing to a metropolis in our lives, was a forty five minute drive away. It had a five digit number preceded by an STD code. We'd sit in the cramped first floor area over Abhinandan Stores and make a twelve rupee call to my brother in Singapore to tell him we were 'there'. At which he'd say 'Hang up' and call back at once so that we could chat with him and with my mother.
Ten years ago, 1996, was the year of our first STD enabled phone. Which meant we could receive calls from friends and family all over the world at home.Ten years on, we have the STD telephone, plus internet, and almost one mobile phone per family member!
What irritation I experience when I cant download all my mail in the morning.How I rage at the display on my mobile phone that reads 'Network Failure'. How lost I feel if I take a trip to the bazaar nearby without my cell phone.
We got by alright without any of these things. That's how it always is when you recall those good old days that sound so good in the recollection. We got by, we managed or we just accepted our limitations. We went on long drives and couldnt call to let anyone know when we'd be back. We drove through miles of elephant ridden country and terrible roads with our little children to meet friends who might be out. We didnt worry so much when we waited at home for someone who was expected back late. We just had a little more faith, and maybe a lot more patience -- I certainly seem to have less now. Is it just me, or have we all become more difficult as life has become more easy?