Telephone Exchanges

by Ritesh Uttamchandani

I spent the last few days of August in the tech capital of the country photographing a gathering of over 4,000 suits. I didn’t get or ask for a room in the host hotel as that would have simply meant that an eight-hour shift will never be an eight-hour shift. I stayed 400 meters away, in a tiny Udupi hotel and restaurant and walked daily to and from the venue for three days.

The commissioning agent insisted that I hire an editor for the gig. Why? The client needed the photos asap for social media, mainly LinkedIn. That was the first time in 15 years of work that someone wanted pictures faster than usual to share on LinkedIn. I had an array of options to pick, but requested my mentor AS. to come along: as a former news photographer and a photo department head, he knows how to transmit images fast.

True to my apprehension, the gig turned out to be a three-person-job, but I had to manage it solo. I’d go from one presentation to another, across the hotel and the convention center and every 45 minutes I would either drop my card to AS. or call him to ask for it to be fetched. He’d then dump the photos, select a few, resize, adjust and upload them via ftp. At the end of the day, we’d take stock, I’d message the total number of pictures to D. in New York, who would say OK. AS. left for his home on a red-eye flight the night the gig was over, and I stayed back to meet some friends – mainly A. and his family.

I had very little time at hand and I sought out H., who hosted me. His house is very close to the airport and yet in all these years I still have managed to miss three flights. H.’s home is also quite close to A.’s. On a day when the clouds threatened to soak the dug-up streets, I made it to A.’s apartment. Last time I was here, I surprised him. This time, I didn’t.

A. welcomed me in and his wife offered me a glass of juice spiked with chat masala. Appi insisted I come to her room and see her house, which had a kitchen set she was proud of. I asked her if she had made anything special for me, but she was too excited to respond and crawled inside her new home. A. was uncomfortable to see me slide from the sofa to the floor, but it made it easier to communicate with him, who was on his favorite chair – his beanbag.

A.’s cousin was watching a soccer match and was a bit preoccupied with the whereabouts of the iron guy who was to deliver the pressed clothes for his graduation ceremony that was to happen the next day. A. and I shot some bull about people we know in common and how are your sisters and how is your brother and how is work and oh, it must have been cool to have witnessed that whacko world cup final that New Zealand should have won. No wait, they did win, but England kept the trophy, like a lot of the stuff in their museums.

So, what brings you here?

I told him I was here to shoot a three-day conference on RPA and AI; on bots and how digital workers are changing the labor landscape and how so many of us might end up being jobless yet again. I joked about installing a bot on my site to communicate with all the editors and clients who owe me money.

Communicate.

Some words, when uttered or heard in isolation, can alter the course of a conversation in unintended directions. I wondered if I would have ever landed any assignments if we were still using slow mail to communicate with editors across the world. I thought of how this assignment must have fared if I didn’t have mobile network, or email. What if someone took away my voice and I couldn’t ask the waiter at Sri Udupi Park to make me a lighter coffee than usual? What if I hadn’t asked A. how things were back home?

His face sank and stayed that way before he said something about how things are, how they were used to this, nothing new, we have enough practice but the worry on his face made me shy away from making eye contact.

Then there was silence.

His frown stayed; I looked at the giant TV; Appi fought with her elder brother while their mother was making tea. A call came from the kitchen asking us to take our cups. I was asked an inconsequential question: “How many spoons of sugar in your cup?” I replied with another question, asking them about how many spoons of sugar they took. They said they have it without sugar and I bravely answered that I am okay to have it without as well. No no, tell us how many you’d like, no no, I’ll have it the way you have. After some more pointless back and forth that is true of all Indians who are trying to be needlessly nice to the point of annoyance to their host, A.’s wife put a spoon of sugar in my cup and said: “If you want it we’ll put it for you, we are not zaalim like your government.”

How many spoons of sugar would it take to sweeten those hearts, I wondered.

Majority wins, minority loses, that’s also how we would decide the seeker in a game of hide and seek.I am a representative of my government, a government I did not vote for, but I accept the validity of their tenure for a large number of my country folk who did vote them in. Majority wins, minority loses, that’s also how we would decide the seeker in a game of hide and seek. The rules have remained same, majority wins, minority loses.

We moved to the table covered with a floral-print plastic sheet. A. and I began shooting bull again; we expressed concern over P.’s mental health: he was once a friend, a “normal” guy as they say, but has now turned into a bigot. There were times when we would all be on those painfully long assignments where a high-profile law breaker would make a court appearance and to merely get a single frame involved elbowing the closest person with a camera out of your way. Sometimes P. would elbow me, sometimes I would injure A. and sometimes P. and A. would have a go at each other but once the accused was taken into court, we’d forget all about it. P. had spent a few days in August in Srinagar photographing the lockdown. I doubt A. was aware of it or even cared.

Few of the people in the photos are offered the dignity of having a first name, but the rest are flattened with a generic caption that identifies them as Indian Kashmiris.He posted some of those photographs on Facebook accompanied with hashtags like #photojournalism #onassignment. Some of his photos had captions; some didn’t, so no one can know who the people in these photos are. A woman on her toes, attempting to speak to a man peeping from a small window in an iron gate; a lonesome soldier under the blazing sun; or a woman holding her head in her hand. Few of the people in the photos are offered the dignity of having a first name, but the rest are flattened with a generic caption that identifies them as Indian Kashmiris.

Ulfat is one such person. She is seen standing distressed in front of an exposed brick wall. Ulfat, as the caption reads, is an Indian Kashmiri mother, who “holds her child as she waits outside a police station after her husband was detained during night raids in Srinagar on August 20, 2019. – At least 4,000 people have been detained in Kashmir since India revoked the restive Himalayan region’s autonomy and imposed a massive security lockdown with phone and internet services cut, government sources said.”

Ulfat means Love.

Appi invades the dining table and begins playing the Casio. She has that look in her gorgeous eyes that command us to clap as each tune reaches its end. We know very well that she’s simply playing the preset tunes and those little fingers are aimlessly dancing over the keys, but never touching it. Yet the charade must continue.

A. and I noticed her mother getting a bit irritated. Not with Appi, the tea is fine, the weather too, is it maybe the guest? I began to think that the problem was with my presence and direct my gaze at the floor. The border of my stupid canvas shoes has opened up, I will need Fevi Kwik. This is a design flaw just like the iPhone cable. These are beige tiles, good lord why do so many apartments today have beige tiles?

I can catch some of the words they exchange; a handful, not all. This is not my language: I can hear them, but I can’t understand them. I lift my head when A. switches from Kashmiri to English, asking his son to bring his second phone and now three phones are being dialed by four hands frantically. It wasn’t me after all. It was the phone.

It is now more than two months. That was the 28th day of siege, I think. She wanted to speak to her brother, inform him about a wedding. Ask him if it is happening at all and if it is, are you going? All phones were pulled into action, all phones were ineffective. None was going through.

A.’s wife was getting crankier and avoided to make eye contact with me. A. kept his cool, while I went to the loo to give them some privacy. I checked the fare on Uber and Ola to the place I was to go next, liked some posts on Instagram, WhatsApped my return flight details to my sister, and my email told me that the client had indeed downloaded all the photos. Job done. When I came out, A. had his jacket on and we got ready to leave. He had to pick up a friend and insisted on dropping me off to my destination.

Inside the car, A. attempted to call once again, and he struck gold. The man on the other side was one of the few who had a working landline and on hearing a name, A. picked up his other phone and dialed another number from it. A sleepy woman answered confused and enquired about the caller. On A.’s second phone, the man with the landline was replaced by an old woman. Both phones were on loudspeaker and the mother assured her daughter, Beta, Sab theek hai yahan. Her daughter said the same but was flummoxed at the timing and suddenness of the call. The mother explained that she called because lines were down again and was worried that her child would worry since she might not get through.

She handed over the phone and a new voice took over. From his second phone, A. dialed a number in Dhaka and the two people spoke to each other through the two phones that now rested on the dashboard. We sat in silence till a new voice came back on and A. reached for his phones again. He worried that a policeman might catch him assuming he is conversing on the phone while driving. He dialed a new number and I held both the phones in my hand instead of them tossing around on the dashboard. He made a few more calls before dropping me off at a petrol station close to my destination.

***

A two-phone system for those stuck in the spiraling fallout of the two-nation experiment. B. lives in Delhi with his girlfriend who is from the north-east of India. His worries have multiplied over the last few months: How will they get married? What about their parents? What about society? What about B.’s mum’s insulin needs? What about the NRC? One shitty evening, out of the blue, a Delhi Police officer called him and cross-checked some very personal details. The conversation seemed like an interrogation at first but left him wondering if it was a disguised threat call. He is the local editor for an international news outlet after all.

Last month, B.’s phone bill was 9,800 rupees. Kashmiris with access and influence have all been running these rudimentary telephone exchanges at home. A two-phone system for those stuck in the spiraling fallout of the two-nation experiment. Disaster.

The movie ended, and I was reminded of Bollywood’s glorious days and films; which in turn made me think of a historian who told me about Kashmir’s gorgeous theatres: banned by the extremists and then taken over by the forces. All things graceful have met a shitty end in the last few decades, including single-screen cinemas.Days later, I came back from a movie about a man whose child commits suicide after having failed an exam. The whole film rests on clichés but does a quiet tiptoed departure in the end. A rare Bollywood film where a hero is a hero because he doesn’t win. The film pays a fantastic tribute to failure, and to friends who will leave everything and be there for you. People who are a phone call away. What did it take for me to book the tickets for the cinema? A phone, 4G and an app that charged me a convenience fee.

During the interval, while at the snacks counter, two boys joked with each other about their college days. One of them whipped out a phone and video-called a friend who was currently in Singapore. He did a 180 panorama from his office window to show them what the city looks like. The movie ended, and I was reminded of Bollywood’s glorious days and films; which in turn made me think of a historian who told me about Kashmir’s gorgeous theaters: banned by the extremists and then taken over by the forces. All things graceful have met a shitty end in the last few decades, including single screen cinemas.

***

When A. dropped me at the petrol pump, we hugged and I told him to reach out if he needed any help. It turns out I was instead the one who needed it. After stepping out of the theatre that night, I messaged him N.’s address and a 1942 number. The phones weren’t working so the next day A. managed to send his brother to look for N., whose home is in a posh commercial area that was under heavy lockdown and hence there was no way to go in and look for him. B. was also sending out feelers to look for N. The area relies heavily on tourism and the only tourists who came this season were journos, who may not be into buying souvenirs this time around.

Sitting in the lobby of my apartment complex, I gave it a go and tried the 1942 number. It was 11 pm, I think. Miraculously the call went through and it was answered by N. himself. This was the first time we had ever spoken, he sounded tired, or sleepy and I felt bad for having disturbed him, but I was happy I got through and I was sure his colleagues would feel the same.

What do we talk about though? Is everything okay? Do you need anything? The answers to most of these questions is no. My battery was low, but we managed an awkward conversation and I asked him to stay up while I would go ten floors up and make him speak to S., his colleague in NYC. I prayed that the lines stay open till I get home.

On the window ledge of my room, my old iPhone called S. via FB messenger and my sister’s Samsung dialed N. At one point my sister and I stood at the door of my room and simply looked in the direction of the two phones. When we were growing up, we didn’t have a phone at home. We’d go to our grumpy neighbor’s house to make and receive calls. It was a common thing in those times. The moment they saw we were taking too long, one of the family members would come and sit facing us, pretending to be reading or chopping vegetables. I remember a caustic remark by one of our neighbors: is my house a telephone exchange?

The wealthier amongst us celebrated the arrival of a phone. The wealthiest were the ones with cordless phones, imported or purchased from a visiting NRI. Few years later we got our own landline connection, and our own TV, and a computer, all housed in our own home. The family album of every Indian child born in the 80s will probably have one photo of a family member posing next to or with a dialer phone. Some of them will also have photos of their family trip to Kashmir, dressed in a borrowed pheran, mock rowing a shikara on the Dal Lake.

It is bizarre that while the rest of the country can swipe away at will, Kashmiris are ambushed back in time and have no option but to rely on these domestic telephone exchanges – most of the times to simply tell their children that everything is okay.

Ritesh Uttamchandani began his  journey in 2004 as an intern in the photo department of The Indian Express. A few months after, he moved over to the Hindustan Times and later, the OPEN Magazine. Over the last decade and a half, he has witnessed and documented major events of national and international importance in the Indian subcontinent. Recently Ritesh self published my first photo book, The Red Cat and Other Stories, which looks at the city of Bombay through the lens of a fable his mother narrated to his sisters and him.  Equal parts travelogue and journalism, the book chronicles the ironies of life in a booming megacity and is a tribute to the magic in the mundane. 

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