Tuesday, June 26, 2018

The day my grandfather became my hero.

Remember the “blank/crank call” phenomenon of the 90s? This was before Caller ID and cell phones. Some of you know what I'm talking about. Probably you've lived through it yourself. For those of you raising your eyebrows in question, here's what would happen.
Every so often, you would get this weird call from God-knows-who. You would hold the slightly musty receiver and say “hello”. Complete silence or worse - creepy breathing from the other side. You would gulp and say hello a few more times. Nothing. Your mom would ask “who is it” repeatedly in an increasingly loud voice and your dad would say “give me the phone, I’ll handle it”. Then all hell would break loose. Your mom would look irritated and your dad would yell a few choice expletives into the hot receiver and you would just roll your eyes and go back to watching “ Closeup Antakshari”.
This happened so often in Mumbai that after a while, I just stopped answering the phone. I let my dad handle the crank calls and expand his swear word vocabulary. Sometimes if my mom was feeling particularly annoyed, she would look at the phone wistfully; hoping it would ring so she would have someone to dump all her wrath on.
The crank calls were a big part of our days. Sometimes they were a Godsend- the phone ringing exactly when we were about to enter a dicey discussion regarding my grades. I could have practically kissed the crank caller then.
And sometimes, they came at the most inopportune moments -right when they were announcing the “filmfare best actor” award. Or worse, right when a young mustachioed Sachin was going to hit a sixer/ get clean bowled to end the match. I would have happily throttled the crank caller with his own phone cord then.
After a particularly busy summer, where we received no less than 5 blank calls a week, my dad called a family meeting. He was developing a sore throat from all the yelling into the phone.
“This must stop,” he said in a hoarse whisper.
I secretly thought that, for him, the magic of screaming at an unknown creep had gone.
“Big inconvenience, answering the phone for bloody, wasteful calls”, he said, his face turning an interesting shade of red. My mom nodded furiously. The Titan Cup was just around the corner and being a hardcore Cricket fan, she wanted nothing and no one’s heavy breathing to interrupt her focus.
“Should we call the police? ”, she asked. After all the (empty) police threats she had promised the crank caller, she felt that maybe it was time to keep her end of the deal.
“No, no police,” said my dad gruffly. “How will they trace the bloody buggers?”
The situation sat there, unresolved while my dad chewed on his mustache.
“And which police branch will I call anyway?” he said suddenly. Peering suspiciously at my mom he muttered, “I don’t want to bribe anyone!”, as if she had suggested buying the entire police force with the family gold.
At the word “bribe”, my grandfather who was nodding drowsily in the corner perked up. Generations of South Indian blood flowed in his old veins. Along with a fondness for filter coffee, he had inherited a strong tendency to never part with his money unless forced to. “Bribe? What nonsense”, he said.
“It’s all the blank calls, Appa”, my dad mumbled and proceeded to explain the whole situation to him.
When he finished, my grandfather looked smug. “I know how to handle those rascals”, he said glibly. Then he proceeded to share his secret with us.
Apparently, he had spent his own share of loud squawking at the crank callers. Then he got smart.
Every time his phone rang, he picked up the receiver and stayed absolutely silent. Occasionally did some heavy breathing of his own.
The crank callers were nonplussed. Imagine this:
Tring Tring.
Grandpa: .........
Crank caller: ..........
Grandpa: .........
Crank caller: ..........
Then,
Crank Caller- *heavycreepybreathing*
Grandpa: *wheezy asthmatic breathing*
After a few times of doing this, Grandpa swore he didn’t get too many blank calls.
The last call he ever got from them, ended with the crank caller letting out a muffled oath and saying “Saala” in an angry whisper. My grandpa hung up his receiver victoriously, the clear winner in this silent battle of wills.
After that, he didn’t get a single call. Not one. The way he says it, the crank callers looked at their list of phone numbers and crossed out his with a big red marker.
Grandpa finished his story and looked around. Awed silence from all of us. The “slow clap” wasn’t popular in the 90s, or else my dad would have done it. There was a palpable excitement in the room. And as fate would have it, the phone rang 15 minutes later. With the air of a surgeon approaching a delicate procedure, my grandpa raised his hand. “Let me handle this call,” he said with a supercilious smile.
He picked up the phone and did his thing. His silent technique was masterful. His patience during the awkward muteness was admirable. Then we heard a distinct click. The offenders had hung up.
We were speechless (which by itself is an impressive feat in a South Indian family). Over the next few weeks, we’d all adopted his strategy. The calls stopped suddenly one day. We looked around excitedly, relishing every decibel of the quiet phone.
That night at dinner, my grandpa got first dibs on everything. On the tv remote, on the sambar, on the best seat at the dining table, on an extra helping of dessert. My dad praised him endlessly and my mom couldn’t stop pouring mounds of Basundi on his plate. "Oh! What the hell", I thought! "The old boy had earned it!"
After a long and interesting life, my grandpa passed away last winter. He will be missed by the usual people. His family, his friends, his acquaintances, his community.
But I like to think that, somewhere in the world, a certain creep is sitting looking at his phone. And raising a tumbler of coffee for the man who ended it all!


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