STD - it changed our lives
An advertisement recently caught my attention in the midst of a cricket match that I was watching. I must confess that I had not seen an ad in a long while; not because they stopped making ads, but simply because I have stopped watching TV. I can start listing my reasons for not watching TV anymore, but that would be a very long detour! There used to be a time quite a few years ago, when we used to eagerly watch Hindi film songs on TV, in between ads. But that seems a long long time ago. And the days when we used to watch cricket on TV (in between ads again!) is also a thing of the past, at least for me. I gave up watching cricket not long after they sold it to the bookies. But I still manage to visit an internet cricket broadcast site for five or ten minutes once in a while - attesting I guess, to the fact that after all, you can probably take a guy away from cricket, but you cannot truly take cricket away from a guy!
Coming back to the ad - it was promoting an app called Revtel (or was it Rebtel?) that promised "cheap international calls to your loved ones". Yeah, so my first reaction was - good luck to them - they must be specifically targeting folks who have a smartphone but for some strange reason have not yet installed whatsapp, facebook or skype; or maybe they were planning for when all three of these crash on the same day! You get the drift, right? I was not particularly impressed at being given yet another option to make a phone call through yet another app; I was quite confused as it were with the many options already available.
But what it did for me was to send me on a wishful thinking trip, thinking of what might have been; if only they had at least one such app maybe twenty years ago. Now since it was wishful, I could afford to ignore many things - for instance, the fact we did not even have the "dumb" mobile phones then, let alone smartphones! But how fantastic it would have been to have something like this when we were growing up, and trust me, boy, did we need it then! It would have been a definite blessing for me, for reasons that I will attempt to explain.
But before I go there, let me try to list the options that we did have. While you could always book a "Trunk Call" (not sure why it was called so) and wait patiently for the "Trunk" to get connected, the one and only real option we had back then was to knock on the doors of what used to be called "STD Booths". Even though an "STD Booth" doesn't sound very inviting now and may in fact put off quite a few, it sure was the best thing that had happened to the telecommunications scene in India. The yellow STD/ISD/PCO* booths proved to be a game changer - suddenly India was connected as never before. Anyone could open an STD booth, and along with providing a reasonable source of income to many an unemployed youth, it presented people like me, who were far away from home and from my dear ones, a viable means to keep in touch. It was no surprise I guess that the blue "inland" letters, which till then ruled as one of the most popular means of mass communication, slowly began taking a backseat even as the STD booths multiplied by the day.
I cannot imagine what I would have done without STD.
You see, all the time that I was "graduating" in a faraway town in North India, a good part of me was still left behind in Kerala, in a town called Alappuzha, to be precise. And the only reason we managed to keep going, all of 3000 kilometres apart, was because of that beautiful technology enclosed in the yellow STD booth; the beeps that the small electronic device with the yellow display panel made, may well have been our own hearts beating in tandem.
Now things were not so easy, to say the least.
She used to stay in her college hostel, and it became apparent pretty quickly that ours were not the only hearts beating to the tune of the yellow devices! There was only one phone in the entire hostel and so with all those beating hearts, it was no surprise that it would be engaged each minute of the day (and night!). But thankfully, she was given an allowance of some kind, probably because we were the farthest apart; most of the others were those who had probably seen each other just an hour back, but understandably needed to update each other on what had happened since they had last met! I don't know how she did it; she somehow managed to convince the others in the hostel to keep the phone free at exactly 10 pm every night. It was sweet to think that most of her friends in the hostel actually agreed to stop their own calls at 9:59 pm so that my call would get through! So, exactly at 10:00 pm each night, the phone in the hostel would ring and all those kilometres would vanish, at least for a few minutes. Those moments were what kept us going.
But it was not enough to plan at the receiving end alone. On the calling end, far far away, it meant that I had to walk a couple of kilometres from my hostel to the STD booth on campus. Daily. And it was no joke, especially in the freezing winter with temperatures close to zero degrees! I can still feel my ears smarting in the icy cold wind! brrrrr.. But summer or winter, rain or fog, 10 pm would have two young hearts in love, at opposite ends of a yellow beeping device. I would be accompanied on most days by a very close friend, who was more or less in the same situation, but did not have a hostel at the other end to contend with - but throw in a pair of alert parents into the mix, and I may in fact prefer to take my chances with the hostel!
In a matter of weeks, I got really experienced at making those calls. I could tell at the very first beep whether or not a lady would interrupt in the sweetest voice possible that "all lines to your destination are busy". You see, the first step was to get through to the main exchange at Alappuzha! But as I said, it soon became a breeze. And I don't remember even a single night when the yellow STD booth failed us. I can remember a few days, when the lines to the exchange would not go through - our understanding was that if the call did not get through at 10 pm, then the next attempt would be made at 1130 pm! So, if not at 10, then definitely at 11, was our motto those days.
I also need mention that it was not exactly cheap to keep the beep device happy. We used to start each call with a strict promise to finish in three minutes, but I have lost count of the number of days three became thirty! Looking back, I do not know how I managed the phone bills - I don't remember asking my father for more than what was due for my normal expenses - but we managed somehow. So for sure, there must have been a few cuts in other spending, but I don't recall ever feeling deprived. She used to also save up money for this, which she used to pass me when we met, which was at least twice every year. So some cuts here and there and we managed to keep the beeps going.
And so, day after day for years, STD changed our lives, gave us something to look forward to and helped us to carry on. Days were spent in between beeps. I cannot imagine what we would have done without STD. And I will ever be thankful as to how it nourished our lives and kept us going.
And so, even though I still like to imagine how cool and convenient it may have been if we had mobile phones back then, I dare say that nothing would come close to the romance of those sweet beeps in the yellow STD booth.
* STD : Standard Trunk Dialling, ISD : International Subscriber Dialling, PCO : Public Call Office.