Is the COVID-19 social distancing nudging us back to the phone call to keep in touch with our communities?
Apart from the time when I was six or so — circa 1986 — I don’t remember particularly enjoying talking on the phone. In fact, I actively avoided it growing up. (Till my first boyfriend happened, of course; a turn of events that then kept me on the phone forever because large parts of that romance were long distance.)
But from the presence of the phone came some of my earliest lessons in navigating people and relationships. And I didn’t even have to use the instrument to learn most of those lessons.
We moved away from India when I was nine; the phone became a lifeline for my parents. They had left their ageing parents back in India; the landline became the only way to talk to them for a whole year. Call rates to India were almost prohibitively high, so once a week, when they were lower, my parents would call home; sometimes, their siblings; I learnt thrift as I watched my parents, week after week, try to arrive at a reasonable ritual that would be fair to both of them. Thrift in resources, time and words. How quickly could I say what I wanted to in as few words as possible became a thing I practiced and got good at.
Art by Sandhya Menon
It was not often that they succeeded (in my memory); at the end of the month, when the phone bills came home, I would, in my child’s mind, bet on how intense the disagreement between my parents was going to be. Not if there was going to be one. In these arguments, I learnt about power. My hard-working father would painstakingly go down the list of calls made and exclaim at how long my now stay-at-home mother had spoken to her side of the family. My mother did not, then, feel like she had the footing to tell him off for doing the same with his side. If the bills were particularly high, he would insist no calls were to be made till he deemed fit. It was the same when we got dial-up internet: the criteria then was not just bills. It was also how long the line was engaged — because my father may have been desperately trying to call.
I don’t remember how these disagreements were resolved. It was most likely that my father’s quick temper cooled. It is also likely my mother, brought up to be obedient and married early, told herself this was her lot; as she wasn’t financially independent after a certain point, I think a mixture of her pride and her desire to make her marriage work let things slide. I learnt, perhaps badly, the immense need to be financially independent. Rather, I learnt to be terrified of being financially dependent, but rarely the real-world lessons of how to be financially independent. Having a job and career was one thing, but true financial independence comes from having money in the bank.
For the first few years after we had moved countries, my mother didn’t apply for a driver’s license. While she drove in India and that gave her a sense of immense freedom and accomplishment, she didn’t really need to drive in this new place because life was so regular.
The phone, then, wasn’t just her connection to her beloved family back home but also a lifeline — it brought sanity, news of her friends that she had just started to make in the city, and community. I remember — on the days that we were home from school — her juggling conversations and cooking. The kitchen alive with at least three things — something on the stove, something being chopped and something in the sink. The cordless receiver tucked in the crook between her neck and shoulder.
She would discuss what we were eating that day — with whoever was at the other end of the line — or troubles with us kids, or gently complain about my father, or being ill. Sometimes, I caught her crying in frustration on the phone. Other times, a little bit of harmless gossip with her closest friends. And I, watching all of this, learnt to look disinterested when I was hyperaltert. A totally useless skill, I might add. I learnt, way before I read the research, that women could multitask and men, not. I learnt how to be efficient and not merely be quick with something. But the most important lesson of all was the lesson my mother never tried to teach me but did anyway, simply by doing. The lesson of community.
Having vast stretches of time to herself, and being largely dependent on her husband to get around — much like many of the women in her circle back then — meant my mother and her friends built much of their solidarity on the phone. Her sense of community — turning to someone when her dad passed away, coping when the same happened to her mother; getting through menopause, cheering someone up when they were ill and offering to cook for them (and send it over), talking about when their daughters reached menarche, or discussing their wayward sons — all of it was done on the phone for my mother. Even after she was mobile and could get around by herself, the phone call was still an important part of her life.
If I were to ask her now — and I have — she would say those calls kept her sane. In a new country, isolated for days till her husband decided to step out on weekends, the phone call gave her a sense of being more than what the home and hearth, and being confined to them, gave her. She was liked, needed and useful as a friend, as a mentor, as a confidant. None of those were roles her family saw or understood till much later. This isn’t about her, though. This was the story of the hundreds of women in her position, many of them in her circle. It was the phone that gave these women a semblance of lives they had left behind. It was a symbol of sanity, community, solidarity and friendship.
As one of my cousins calls on the weekend, I first ask her, without thinking, if she needed something. Phone calls, for me, are entirely about mundane utility. When she says she had been indoors for nearly eight days because she was diligent in doing what is required in the times of the CoronaVirus, my heart ached. All she needs is to see another human being, talk to someone else. A friend says she has done more video calls in this week than her entire life because many of her friends need support. Yet another friend, with whom I exchange succinct texts about wellbeing, disaster and emotional wreckage, calls and we chat. We ended the phone call with, “I know we haven’t talked in a long time; but we’ll do better.”
At a time where being on the internet is exhausting — depressing, scary news; outrage cycles that do not allow you to recover, and people posting WFH ( work from home) pictures (an intimacy that I did not sign up for) — the phone call stands as a symbol of comfort. We cannot survive without connection; a text or an emoji doesn’t convey the warmth of a voice, the softness of someone’s gaze or the delight of someone’s smile. The only thing a phone call doesn’t allow for is the wetness of big, fat kisses. But it’s cute to see lips plastered to a screen for just a second.
Sandhya is an independent writer based in Bangalore. She writes about mental health, among other things, through the lens of navigating her own conditions of BPD ( borderline personality disorder) and BPAD (bipolar affective disorder).