When the telephone first came to our town, we had to learn how to use it. Not just the dialling of numbers and recognising the different sounds that indicated that the call was going through or the annoying pipping sound that meant the phone at the other end was engaged. But also, things like greeting the person at the other end politely, and stating your business.
One way to start talking was to announce your phone number, and give the caller space to state their business. Our phone number was 428, that’s right, just three numbers. When receiving incoming calls, you could use a well-rehearsed and cheery ‘four-two-eight’ or a more brusque version. You always said Hello. ‘Hello, four-two-eight here,’ in a smiling voice. It is amazing that a voice over the telephone can convey so much. People can sound relaxed and happy to get your call, or the complete opposite if you get a harried housewife at the other end. A very small number of people found the telephone intrusive and annoying and did not want to install them. But that was, as stated, a minority. Most of the young families found it a very convenient invention and eagerly invited the telephone company home.
With more than half the households telephonically available, communication really perked up in 1960s Kohima. We also learned to decipher the calls depending on the timings of calls. For example, friends of parents called in the evening hours for a leisurely talk. Our own friends made shorter calls to decide where to meet up the next day.Calls that came in the morning between 7 and 8 am were not very welcome. Those were busy hours for a young family trying to get four or five kids off to school. But the really alarming calls were the ones that came early in the morning, meaning around 5 am or thereabouts. Either Mum or Dad would pick up these calls and the rest of us would tensely wait. ‘Uncle X died’ or ‘Aunt B passed away just now,’ Dad would announce after such a call. Everyone would get out of bed, the adults would rush through breakfast and leave to call on the bereaved family. If it was a close relative, the whole family went together. An early morning call was never welcome. It always filled one with foreboding, it was a harbinger of death. The same went for the late-night call. It would invariably announce that a relative had died in hospital or at home, usually unexpectedly. When we were young, people died only at night or in the morning. It was rare that anyone died in the afternoon. But I could be wrong. Could be that the phone was ringing in the afternoon when no one was at home to receive it.
Besides telephonic announcements of deaths, there were also other calls, some important, some not. That brings me to another story. A young man once came to work for my father. He was hired to work like an Orderly, a position very similar to a peon. The word Orderly comes from army usage, meaning ‘an enlisted soldier assigned to perform various chores for a commanding officer.’ The Hindi version became Ardali. Anyway, the Orderly thoroughly enjoyed picking up the telephone when any calls came. You could hear his loud, ‘Hallo!’ from the downstairs rooms. It was louder than most. One day, my father discovered why. The young man, bless his heart, was holding the receiver upside down and so, had difficulty hearing what the caller wanted! These were the days of the dial telephones of old.
Not everyone was a fan of the telephone, as stated earlier. My grandmother did not know how to react to it. If she was alone in the house, and the phone began to ring, she would stand close to it, never picking it up, but raising her voice to say, ‘Kya kiüshi? Miapuorei bamoho’ which translates as ‘What is it? No one is home.’ She rejected all attempts to teach her to use it.
I think telephone etiquette is even more relevant today. In fact, much more relevant when our phones have become an attachment of our selves. A lady I know, has no qualms about interrupting our conversation to answer her phone and spend a good half hour talking to some other person. I was tempted to get up and use hand signals to say goodbye, and leave, but was stopped by the fact that our conversation had not been finished before she answered her phone. Prioritising a person on the other end of the phone over someone who is present in the room with you is rather rude, you will agree. It is always possible to decline the call since your phone gives that possibility and ring the caller later. And the caller knows that people are available 24/7 on their mobiles, therefore would take no offence. But the height of rudeness has to be the army officer who insisted on attending a church service in a Naga town, and in the middle of things, when his phone rang, he took it out and began to talk loudly although the rest of the congregation were intently listening to the speaker! So Pakala.