India's Tryst With Telephony
Voice and Data|August 2020
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India's Tryst With Telephony
The country’s wireless telephony journey has been remarkable in many ways. The sector is now hurtling at a brisk pace to its next transformation
Sandip Das

In the mid-1960s, my father a senior government official was assigned a telephone at residence. Despite being officially told that the installation had been rolled into action, it took its own time. Therefore, the day the black Bakelite masterpiece arrived there was some pandemonium. As a grateful family, we feted the proverbial linesman with generous doses of tea and snacks out of sheer disbelief and emotional gratitude.

The list of ‘family and friends’ to be called had been drawn up much earlier and as soon as the dial tone was detected and the ‘messiah of connections’ had departed, the tryst began. Most recipients of our calls were of course, affluent and influential people as it was only that section of society that had the means to have those copper wires strung across to their abodes.

What followed was a bit of an annoying series of events, as capricious neighbours suddenly befriended us in hordes and slipped into a steady stream, to make that one emergency call. Dad, the conscientious official, had to take palliative action and swoop down hard to remind us that it was primarily for official purposes and that our generosity needed to be curbed given the prospect of an unsavoury monthly telephone bill, which if not settled on time could lead to an insensitive swift disconnection.

We were also aware that the authorities considered it their largesse to have given us a privilege denied to many who were on the waiting list. In fact, many fathers in middle-class families had the foresight to book a ‘telephone connection’ for their 15-year old daughters so that when they were ready for matrimony, the years spent on the waiting list would have elapsed brightening their prospects of finding a ‘better catch’, suitably aided by what could now be a part of the trousseau along with a gas connection.

Years later, when I started working, the perquisite of having a phone at home was conferred on me being part of the firm’s prestigious Management Trainee scheme. However, as a part of my modest duties, I had to call up over 21 state headquarters on month ends, to seek information on their model-wise stocks and sales. This meant booking ‘trunk calls’ some of which would take a day or two to materialize. Missing a call would mean going back to the end of a laborious queue and missing my dates. I remember spending a considerable time over two days doing my work next to my telephone table and even partaking meals there.

When the calls came through I had to rely on my young auditory abilities to comprehend sounds from the other end. Looking back, they were truly interesting times. How did we fetch children from school, check on ailing parents, hail our drivers, contact a handyman?

Years later one afternoon in 1994

I was invited to a seemingly innocuous corporate lunch at the rooftop restaurant of the Taj Mansingh Hotel in honour of a gentleman called Khoo Chek Nee, Managing Director of Hutchison Telecom from Hong Kong. Ashwani Windlass who was responsible for getting me back to India to work with the group had a mischievous smile. Quite disconcertingly at the sit-down lunch, I was made to juxtapose between the guest and the patriarch Bhai Mohan Singh; both of whom took a rather unusual interest in me.

After lunch, the mystery unraveled as Bhai Analjit Singh drew me aside in Ashwani’s presence and told me that there was no need for me to return to my Nehru Place office as I was headed to Thailand the next day. He mentioned that the telecom license wrangling in court had been settled, handing me a copy of a Paging license granted to the joint venture called Hutchison Max Telecom.

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August 2020