Where Art Thou, Landline?

Watching movies at home, no more missing the crucial scene as I have to dart to the bathroom, no rushing to catch the start of the movie… Welcome VCR! For the uninitiated, this is the videocassette recorder. Put that VHS (Video Home System) tape inside that box the size of a Samsonite suitcase, wait for a series of whirling sounds and then kick back, relax and enjoy the movie in the comfort of your home.

But not all homes are so comfortably fortunate. It is only a few who can afford these magic boxes. And like those from earlier days who were the first with transistor radios and then with black-and-white TVs and then with Sony Trinitron colour TVs with the manufacturer sticker kept stuck across the top right corner of the screen, thus eclipsing the tennis racquet of the left-handed John McEnroe as he serves at Wimbledon. 

Thus starts the VCR parties. We all go to watch Saturday Night Fever at the house of the second cousin of our friend Shibli. And it is always a beautiful, air-conditioned house with a host displaying his worldly possessions, including the triple-decker "trolley" with a wide array of nashta—the top deck adorned with vegetable rolls and with well-endowed (not just onion) fillings, middle deck well supplied with iced Coca Cola in small glasses, and the bottom deck with bone china cups and saucers accompanied by a "tea cosy", akin to the hat of the guards at Buckingham Palace, warmly (pun intended) protecting the metal kettle inside.

After many years, my fantasy becomes a reality as we get our very own such device. Ok, we get the poor man's version of the poor man's version—a VCP instead of a VCR from Funai instead of from Sony. Oh, and the VCP is the video cassette PLAYER that can only PLAY but is handicapped from not being able to RECORD.

Then comes the compact disc (CD) player followed by the short-lived laserdisc (LD) player followed by the grand entry of the mobile phone. Though at the beginning, the mobile phone is mobile only at the risk of a hernia for its size and weight are not too dissimilar from those of the AK-47. Not to mention the risk of a heart attack too due to the price tag of both being almost the same. And forget about making a call in one go, because half the calls are going to the venerable land phone.

But somehow, even at this time in history, a call from a landline requires the mandatory silent prayer preceding the picking up of the receiver so that the telephone gods grant the rare but mandatory dial tone. If the gods are unhappy, you somehow get the dial tone back after dialing the first number.

For a long period, the mobile phone remains as the possession of the few and the proud, rendering the landline as still the most coveted, but hard to obtain, necessity. Many continue to go to the neighbour's house to beg to make a phone call which in turn prompts the (phone-owning) man to invent the small phone padlock, the first ever analogue phone password system.

But who knew, in today's mobile era, I would have to go to the neighbour's house to make a call from his land phone? The mobile network coverage is blocked in my area, and luck has it, I need to make an emergency call to the locksmith as my six-year-old has accidentally locked the bedroom with the keys inside and I'm in my lungi and a torn t-shirt and I need to get my clothes for a comedy show that starts in an hour! I painstakingly call the locksmith while looking up the number on my expensive smartphone which is now a dumb telephone directory (collection of a thousand pages, heavy enough to be used as a weapon, remember?). It takes me several minutes to recall that there is no "send" button, that the strange sound is called a dial tone and the curly paraphernalia is called a wire. After the call, on reflex, I pick up the phone to try to put it into my pocket.

And the locksmith? The call doesn't go through. Because he is in the periphery of the area where the mobile networks are blocked.

I guess it is a broad spectrum antibiotic that is also used as the rationale to block Facebook during the SSC exams, though I'm sure there would have been protests demanding the blocking of the SSC exams when using Facebook. Well, at least I have the comfort of knowing that it will be easier for me to physically carry someone in dire medical needs to the hospital within walking distance as the option of calling Emergency 999 from a mobile phone is now not there in the area.

The mobile networks are still down. But I have internet, my only link to the outside world and even to the outside of my house. But this is an eye-opener. I have downloaded the application for a landline phone. Fortunately, there is no longer a 15-year wait for a land phone, because the line man has been begging me for the last two months to give him the "chance" to "help" me get a landline that nobody wants. Here is the same line man, who, in the days of the black-and-white to colour TV, VCR to VCP, LD to obliteration, bazooka mobile phone to the pre-dawn era of the mutho (hand) phone, is the one WE were begging to get US a landline…


Naveed Mahbub is an engineer at Ford & Qualcomm USA and CEO of IBM & Nokia Siemens Networks Bangladesh turned comedian (by choice), the host of ATN Bangla's The Naveed Mahbub Show and ABC Radio's Good Morning Bangladesh, and the founder of Naveed's Comedy Club. Email: [email protected]


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