The lightning call14

When I arrived in Calcutta after leaving Pondicherry, I wanted to phone my family. My sisters and brothers had driven me to the Madras airport, and then they had to make the three-and-a-half-hour drive back to Pondicherry. So I was worried about them. I felt sorry, because going and coming back came to seven hours of driving altogether. For me, it was only an hour-and-a-half plane ride from Madras to Calcutta. So after about three hours I started phoning Pondicherry to see if they had gotten back all right.

The operator said that the Pondicherry line was out of order and that it could be that way for two or three more days. Quite often when I try to call from New York, the operator says that the Pondicherry line is out of order. The first day I believed the operator. The second day when I tried to call, again the operator said that it was out of order. I said, “O God, what does the government do if it has to make an urgent call?”

The operator said, “Oh, the government has a special line that is used only for lightning calls. If you make a lightning call, you have to pay eight times more.”

I said, “Look here, I am willing to pay eight times more.”

The operator said, “Eight times more? Are you sure?”

I said, “I have the money, so please do it.”

So the operator made the lightning call around one-thirty in the morning, but nobody answered. My mind was worried that perhaps something had gone wrong. One is allowed to try a lightning call only twice, and then the call is cancelled. They made the second call a half hour later and still there was no answer. What had happened was this: the Calcutta hotel operator had put through the lightning call, but the rogues in Madras had used a wrong number. All the time I thought that something had gone wrong with my family’s phone. It turned out that our phone was all right, but the Madras operator was putting me through to a wrong number.

The following day I tried to make another lightning call two times, but again it didn’t go through. Whenever the call does not go through, you don’t have to pay; but you always get a scolding from the operator. The operator barks at you because a lightning call is only supposed to be made by very rich or great people. They did not feel that I was rich or great enough.

My family couldn’t call me because they didn’t know at which hotel I was staying. Finally, I called my house in New York. Since nobody there had heard from my brothers and sisters, I said, “That means that everything is all right. If anything had gone wrong, they would have called New York.” From New York one of the girls tried calling Pondicherry, but she had the same fate. She could not get through. Finally, she sent a telegram to my family asking if everyone was all right.

The next day I told the operator that I had been trying to call Pondicherry for three days. She put in another lightning call, and in two minutes the call went through. My brother answered the phone and I immediately said to him, “Why have you not been answering the phone?”

At the same time he said to me, “Where is your concern for us? Why have you not called us for four days? One of us has always been near the phone, worrying.”

I said, “I have tried to make lightning calls twenty times.”

So everything was all right. The first day when they didn’t answer, I felt that perhaps my sister was tired and exhausted from travelling, and therefore she didn’t hear the phone ringing. It turned out that my brother was there, but the phone line was not working at all. For three days the Pondicherry line was not working. I said, “What kind of worries the telephone can create!” I was blessing the telephone like anything.

I was so happy that I finally got through to Pondicherry that I called the hotel telephone operator. I had heard her say her name, Mrs. Dasgupta. She was Bengali, but we started talking in English because telephone operators always prefer to speak English. She told me, “You asked for a lightning call, but I did not make a lightning call. I have a friend in Madras and I told her to make it a special call without saying it was a lightning call.” It would have cost me six hundred rupees, but now I had to pay only one hundred ten rupees. So I was very grateful to her.

I put a hundred rupees in an envelope to give her, and then I went downstairs to the hotel telephone office. The place was so dirty! I stood at the door and said, “I would like to speak to Mrs. Dasgupta.” So many people were working there. How could I go in and give her the envelope when there were so many other girls around? I said to the guard, “Can you ask her to come here?”

The guard came back and said, “They are asking you to come in.”

I said to myself, “I am in trouble now. I can’t just give her this envelope in front of everyone.”

So I gave her a copy of the small Galaxy of Luminaries. When she saw my picture with the Pope, she could not believe it. She said to me “Where do you come from?”

I said, “I am Bengali. Why?”

She said, “But when you talked to your family, it was not in Bengali.”

I said, “I come from Chittagong.”

She said she could not understand a word of our Chittagong dialect.

I said, “This is what you do? You listen to people’s private conversations?”

She said, “Oh no, I just wanted to see if you got through to your party. Then I heard something very peculiar.” Then she added, “You don’t have a Chittagong accent.”

I said to myself, “Not in vain did I stay at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. There I spoke real Bengali.”

Then she started appreciating my Bengali. I didn’t have the heart to tell her how many books, poems and songs I have written in Bengali. Then she said, “Is your mother alive?”

I said, “No.”

She said, “The person who would have been the happiest to see this picture is not alive.”

I said, “I lost her when I was quite young.”

She said, “I am so sorry that you have lost your mother. She would have been the happiest person.

I said, “There is something called Heaven, so she can be proud of her son from Heaven.”

She was very moved. Then I gave her the envelope and said, “This is a gift.”

I thought she would show false modesty and say, “No,” and I would have to insist. But she just took it and thanked me. Inwardly I said, “You deserve it! You saved me from paying for a lightning call.”

WE 14. 28 March 1982