Life before the ‘Touch Screen’ Era
Columns, Over A Cup of Evening Tea

Life before the ‘Touch Screen’ Era

By Dr. K. Javeed Nayeem, MD

Last night I happened to attend a CME. Now, this acronym which may seem a little unknown to most people, stands for ‘Continuing Medical Education’ and it denotes an educational activity that involves lectures, seminars or workshops which give doctors an opportunity to refresh and update their knowledge in their respective fields of practice. CMEs are therefore a very good means of ensuring that practicing doctors remain up-to-date in their knowledge which in turn ensures that patients get the best treatment in their hands. To ensure this, the Medical Council of India has now made attending a certain number of CMEs in a year mandatory for all doctors before they can get their practicing licences renewed.

This is a very good stipulation as otherwise there was no other way of ensuring that all doctors, beyond the few with an enduring academic bent of mind, would be armed with the latest knowledge of medicine. And, medicine is one of the scientific fields where knowledge and technology are growing at a dizzyingly rapid pace. What we doctors read in our textbooks and what we admire as the latest means of diagnosis and treatment are already on the way to becoming stale even as they reach us.

At yesterday’s CME my friend and the chief guest, Dr. B. Krishnamurthy who retired just last month as the Dean and Director of the Mysore Medical College and Research Institute, while addressing the gathering, remarked that we were all now in the ‘Era of Touch’ where just by a mere touch of the smart screen we can do almost anything and everything that we wish to do and get in touch with anyone in any part of the world, which was indeed a very remarkable achievement. This remark generated a good amount of discussion after the academic session wherein a few very young doctors and post-graduate students seemed wonderstruck over how cumbersome things might have been before phones and screens became smart. Surprisingly, this was not very long ago but some of them were so young that the only mobile phones they had first started using as teenagers were smart ones! I told them a little about the kind of primitive telephony that we had until just a few years before they were born but did not elaborate because it was pretty late and I had to get back home, a necessity for which science has not yet found an alternative! But this morning I decided that a brief update for all members of their generation about how the scene was in our country before we opened our doors for global investment, enterprise and technology to march in would be in order.

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I think the fastest growth that took place in our country at that time was in the telecommunication sector. There was a time in the early seventies when BSNL was the boss and getting a telephone connection would entail a wait of nearly ten years after paying the stipulated fee and registering your application. If you were a big shot in a hurry who would not mind paying many times more than the stipulated fee you could ask for preferential treatment under the ‘Tatkal Scheme’ or another weird scheme called ‘Own your Phone’ where you would almost end up paying the entire cost of manufacturing not only your telephone but all the wires and telephone poles too that were required to bring it to your doorstep! Getting a telephone connection was only half the problem. Getting your call through within a time frame when it would be of some use to you was the tougher part. Before the rotary dial arrived on the scene you had to pick up the receiver and ask the operator to connect you to the number you wanted. For trunk calls you had to ask for or dial 180 and book a call and wait patiently for it to ‘materialise’, the magical word for a successful connection!

For any information regarding any delays you had to contact 181 and these enquiries would be entertained only after an hour for normal calls and half an hour for urgent calls which would be charged double the normal rates. All ‘un-materialised’ calls would automatically get cancelled in just 24 hours! Even if your calls did materialise there was no guarantee that the speech would be clear. So a trunk call, true to its name, often involved much screaming, bellowing and trumpeting like angry elephants! In case of a life or death emergency if you had the means to pay for it you could book a ‘Lightning Call’ which would be charged an astounding eighteen times the normal rate although it was only the charge and not the connecting time for which the word ‘lightning’ seemed to have any meaning!

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Considering the difficulty in getting a telephone connection not many people had their own telephones and so when you had to speak to a friend or relative who did not have one you had to book a ‘Particular Person’ or ‘PP Call’ when the operator would ask for that particular person and connect the call after ensuring that he or she was at the other end. That was therefore the time when most people would cultivate and nurture good relationships with all their next door neighbours who happened to have telephones! The telephone directory for the entire state of Karnataka was in one volume leaving aside Bangalore City which had its own matching sibling of similar size. I have still preserved these two ‘Aadi Granths’ in my collection of books which is ageing with me.

Direct dialling or Subscriber Trunk Dialling more commonly known as STD arrived on the scene in our state only in the early seventies. I first experienced the delight of calling up my home in Mysore from Hubli without the help of an operator in the year 1973. Strangely our own Mysore got its out-going STD facility much later. The STD code for Bangalore then was 0812 and it was later changed to 080. International calls with the direct dialling facility now known as ISD came only in the late eighties. Until then if you booked an overseas call, before processing your request the operator would call you back to ensure that you really booked the call because it was an expensive affair.  For some very strange reason, for all international calls you had to also tell the operator in advance the language you would be conversing in. I wonder if this was to ensure that an operator fluent in that language could be assigned to not only oversee your call but also over-hear your conversation in the interests of national safety!

e-mail: [email protected]

October 6, 2017

2 COMMENTS ON THIS POST To “Life before the ‘Touch Screen’ Era”

  1. theskywalker says:

    The purpose of this article? India has been a third world country for decades and the communication revolution arrived very late. More worrying should be the hundreds of millions of people below the UN-defined poverty threshold, the rip -off costs of healthcare where doctors and private hospitals consider it as their birth-right to fleece people, to handout wrong diagnosis and prognosis; those wealthy desert them and go to Singapore as the actor Ambarish did!

  2. Nagaraj says:

    It was the misrule of congress party for sixty years which has made our country a pathetic one.

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