Hello? Hello? - Oct. 16th
From "May You Be the Mother of a Hundred Sons": "To use the telephone in Calcutta was to plunge into the unknown; calls usually ended in busy signals, strange clicks, or dead air." Actually this is true in all of India. Now just try and use e-mail!
The number of telephone lines a country is often correlated with the wealth of the country. America has 627 lines per 1000 people, Hong Kong 530 per 1000, China has about 30 lines per 1000, while India has a mere 13 per 1000, with the bottommost being Malawi at 11 lines per 1000.
Our new house will have two telephone lines! If one dies (and it will), we will have a backup. Since it only takes a month to transfer a line, as opposed to a year or two to get a line, it is wise to apply for as many lines as possible. Having two phones is an amazing privilege in India - there’s this old story in America about the competition in privilege and power between Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater. Johnson was one of the few people to have a car phone in the early sixties. Eventually, Barry Goldwater got one, and he immediately called Johnson on his car phone. Johnson’s reply - "Barry, can you hold on a second, my other phone is ringing". I will relive that experience here!
The lack of telephone access has interesting consequences. Most of our potential employees do not have a telephone number. So contacting them can be a long process, involving mail, foot, and the coconut telegraph. Because the lines are so noisy, and because lines drop so quickly, India has its own conversational phone protocol. Trying to be a good listener with employees, I will wait till they are done speaking to me on the phone. This has the wrong effect; thinking the line has dropped, the employee will panic and quickly say "Hello? Hello?" The correct protocol, I am learning is to say a quick "ucha"(good), or "hanji"(yes) during any quick pause in the conversation. Acknowledgements are essential in a noisy world.
Of course, the lack of telephone access also results in general telephone ignorance. A new 40-year-old guard we are evaluating wouldn’t answer the telephone. Eventually, I realized he didn’t know how to use the telephone. I told him to pick up the receiver, and then pointed to it. He picked up the headset and looked at the business end with curiosity, and then giggled with childlike awe when a voice came out of the speaker. He then asked how to make it louder. I told him to put the speaker to his ear. I think I am learning as much as he is.