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A look at history of long-distance phone calls to India

Posted by Your Town  June 24, 2013 10:56 AM

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Making international calls to India used to be for most Indians (that is not to exclude other immigrants and there may be commonalities) living in the US a weekend affair. Not BBQ, or a child’s little league game or grocery shopping or nail and hair appointments. End of the work week, everyone that matters is available night time in India and there is time to talk at length. Some people chose to make the calls every other weekend, others every week.

Saturday or Sunday mornings often all Indians on US soil would be glued to their phones calling parents, siblings, friends taking stock of their own emotional need to be connected, as well as reach out to those far and out and assure them that things were alright. That living in foreign land was a fine experience - food was available, apartments and homes were comfortable, money was being spent only on the most important things and enough was being saved up toward a trip home soon. Missing out on important family events like weddings, festivities, births and even deaths – all the life cycle rituals that make the culture what it is – made life somewhat not as rich. And then there were some of us who were worry warts felt that something bad might happen in our absence and only a phone call might help prevent it! The invaluable call had several purposes – communication, connection with family and most of all a task that made us feel we have done the right thing. And hoped that our effort to make the calls and reach out was being appreciated…well not really, but we continued to make the calls anyway.

This was during the times when internet chat had not taken off in the way it has now. Well, some homes did use cheap web assisted telephone messaging system. And phone calls were expensive – they added up as the minutes piled up with the phone being passed on from one family member to another. Regular phone companies charged anywhere from 40 cents a minute to 50 cents a minute and then there were connection charges, dropped calls and with all the taxes, the bill was no less than whopping figures but what was the option?

During family emergencies, Indians often received “collect calls” in the US which meant that a call was being placed in India to a US phone and the cost would be accrued to the person in the US. This was pricey as well. The option was to deny it and then make a call from the US to India – that was a more reasonable way out.

Crafty and entrepreneurial immigrants devised messaging systems. Do you remember “Navin mail?” It was a flawed albeit, fun way to leave messages in a voice mail system that either side could access and was notified on email. It did not last very long – not in my household anyway. ICQ was a lovely program before MSN chat and Yahoo chat provided the instant messaging options. But most households in India did not have computers and chatting online was possible at that end only at cyber cafes. One way or the other costs were abominable. Gradually things started to change – not on the US end of things. It was India’s booming cellphone industry or the mobile phone industry as they say that made the difference. Text messaging was far more advanced in India and was the rage much before it made its presence felt in the US. Our emails in the US were flooded with messages from ten digit mobile phone numbers and quite often left us perplexed about how it was possible for India to advance in the mobile phone based “SMS” (short message service) technology when none of that had happened here. With low tariffs, mobile phone subscribers grew in India and people avoided using landlines. The in thing was GSM technology (Global System for Mobile communication) that afforded efficiency and international roaming.

We in the US caught on. Texting happened and how it has taken off! And then there was VoIP (voice over IP) that succeeded broadband internet connections. The internet based phone service provided the much needed respite from international call charges. So there was that and there is fiber optics which although tore up streets and yards and then patched it all up, presented internet that could make possible Skype calls and streaming videos if you wished “fast” and cheap! Can you imagine how much cricket and IPL was missed until then? But Skype came before that and subscribers found themselves hooked with the messaging and computer to computer calls and following some more technological advancements video chats and webcam assisted conversations was a big boon. Every Holi, Diwali, and Christmas, Indians are watching relatives in India and abroad and feel that they are able to partake of the important things in life. Grandparents were up to date about their grandchildren’s activities and developments. Most of all, people are on top current news and events – national and international. Phone calls are no longer the responsibility of Indians residing in the US. It sure feels good to communicate on par if not less than the relatives in the country. Since one can’t leave voice messages on calls made to India – facility not existent there, you leave what is called a “missed call.” Believe you me, your call will be returned. And making a call or not is no longer imbued with a sense of investment, guilt or relief. Saturdays are freed up for existential things because calls can and are made anytime one feels like.

Rajashree Ghosh is a resident scholar at the Women's Studies Research Center at Brandeis University in Waltham.


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