Out of India: Ringing up the charges with clinical efficiency

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The Independent Online
NEW DELHI - Whoever designed the Indian telephone system must have been a frustrated railway engineer. Placing a call is a bit like walking into Old Delhi station and choosing between the trains at the platforms. Like trains, there are fast calls, and slow, cheaper calls that take for ever crossing India.

The types of calls have wonderful names that crackle back to the dawn of the electronic age, when every long-distance connection was a miracle. Depending on how many rupees you want to spend, you can either go with a Lightning call, an Express call, a Speed call or an Ordinary milk-train call, which is useless.

Booking a Lightning call, you can almost hear the operator snapping to attention on the end of the line - yes, Sahib] - before he flags off your Lightning call and throws every electronic switch from Delhi to Madras, shunting other people's pathetically unimportant communications out of the way so that yours can go roaring through.

This magnificently elitist system has its drawbacks, though. What the Indian telephone company does not tell you is that a Lightning call, in turn, gets bumped off the line by VIPs and exalted Very, Very Important Persons (VVIPs), usually Members of Parliament, who can babble the night away.

Thankfully, all this is changing. In most Indian towns now there are STD booths, which are not to be confused with STD clinics. You will notice the difference immediately on entrance. In the STD clinics (which I quickly learnt stands for Sexually Transmitted Diseases), there are long lines of sullen men, hands clapped over their painful groins, and not a telephone in sight.

In STD booths, you can dial anywhere in the world, automatically, and a little computer rings up the reasonable fee. STD booths are rigged up in the oddest places. I've been able to dictate my articles to London from a chemist's in Faizabad and from a teashop in a Benares bazaar, where my bellowing 'That's Rao, R as in Robert, A as in Apple . . . ' attracted a gaping throng who must have thought I was mad.

When I first moved to Delhi, two and a half years ago, I looked at 63 houses before I found one with an STD telephone. Water cascaded in through the roof during the monsoon rains, the neighbourhood was prone to power cuts, and a body was found cut up in a sack in the back alley, but none of this mattered, because the telephone worked. There are little hitches, to be sure, like the time thieves ripped out two miles of telephone cables in my neighbourhood. The rumour was they sold it back to the telephone company.

Overseas calls are tricky during the monsoon (July to September) and the May dust-storms, but even in the best of times, London knows me as just a feeble voice. I often feel like somebody's senile old uncle. A 'H-h-hello . . . ' is all I can manage before my voice sputters and dies, and I must dial again. It used to take 15, 20 times for a clear line, but the telephone service has improved vastly over the past two years.

Getting accustomed to Indian telephone manners was also quite a chore. Indians are used to shouting down bad lines and getting wrong numbers, so their etiquette is rather startling. A typical exchange goes like this:

My phone rings, usually before 8am.

'Hello?' I answer.

'Hello? Hello? Hello?' the caller says impatiently.


'Who are you?' roars the caller, already full of angry challenge.

'Who are you?' I reply. 'You called me.'

This little game goes on for about a minute before I break down and fnally identify myself. Six times out of 10, the caller has misdialled.

'Get off]' he commands, as though I were to blame for trespassing on his telephone.

Then I got my first bill, which was Himalayan in size, and, naturally, there was no log of the calls. Friends explained to me that the local exchange-operator had most probably taken a bribe from someone, so that every time this person wanted to make an overseas call, it was charged to my bill. I was warned there was no way to fight this.

I decided to complain, but changed my mind once I went to the offices of the Delhi telephone company. The complaints department there had the most ominous name: Public Grievances Cell. I could imagine myself disappearing into the Public Grievances Cell for a long, long time.