You Used to Call Me on My Landline: Remembering Hotline Bling of the ’90s


You Used to Call Me on My Landline: Remembering Hotline Bling of the ’90s

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

When Graham Bell invented the telephone, I am sure he did not think that one day, his creation would be used by thirsty millennials to find a mate on Tinder. Perhaps even Charles Darwin would’ve been unable to predict this unlikely evolution. Of course, back then, the telephone wasn’t “smart”, but that doesn’t mean it was dumb. It was symbolic. The telephone, or the landline, as us ’90s kids call it, represented that generation just as much as today’s selfie-clicking, Netflixing, Insta-storying smartphone represents the current one.

The smartphone is the ultimate technological emblem of instant gratification, a high to which today’s generation is addicted. Everything is now, in the moment. Mah lyf, mah rulez. The fact that your quest for instant gratification is recorded for posterity on the cloud is no cause for alarm, even though if we were still using landlines, there would be no data theft and Donald Trump would not be playing “Mine’s Bigger” on Twitter with Kim Jong-un.

It’s not just politics, landlines also had a tremendous impact on our psychology, teaching us patience and restraint. Remember how your parents would allot fixed time slots for your siblings and you to chat with your friends? Back when we had to sell a kidney to make a call from a mobile phone? Twenty years ago in India, there was one box-like device with numbers on it that bonded families together like a viewing of Hum Saath Saath Hain. You could tell your absent-minded grandfather had used the phone last because the receiver wasn’t properly placed back in the cradle, and recognise each family member, from youngest to oldest, by the tone of their “hello”.

That device was precious, that is why it was corded. Not like today’s smartphones, constantly falling out of pockets in cabs and trains. The landline had a wire that kept it – and you – rooted, but it could also set you free if you chose to be unavailable. You went out, the phone stayed in. Today’s smartphones are more like tracking devices, following you around like a puppy. “You and I, in this beautiful world,” and all that.

Years ago, people used to store landline numbers in their memories, not their memory cards.

With your smartphone, you simply cannot be unavailable; the blue ticks will get you. You can’t take a break from work since disabling the blue ticks will get you chucked out of your office WhatsApp group, and maybe even your office. It’ll force you to lose a few IQ points in dire times, say for instance, when your boss or uncle posts the oldest joke known to mankind, and you are obliged to reply with a ROFL smiley because, increment.

Stifling your irritation is not the only emotional compromise smartphones force upon you. They also stop you from blowing off steam. You can’t get angry while using your smartphone. They’re too delicate, and you can’t afford a replacement. But you can bang a landline as hard as you want, which has the dual effect of getting your point across to the caller as well as leading you to catharsis. When I used to be angry, I’d slam the receiver down so hard that the person on the other end could visualise me showing them the middle finger.

Not only have we lost a vent for our aggression, our mental capacity has also dwindled. Years ago, people used to store landline numbers in their memories, not their memory cards. Reciting the numbers in that distinct, sing-song rhythm definitely helped. Today, people have difficulty remembering how old they are.

The other day I asked my friend for his car’s number, and he opened an app where it was stored along with his ATM pin, which I noted. Now, all I need is his debit card. Back in the day of landlines, such pranks weren’t sinister. If the old uncle refused to give back your cricket ball, his afternoon siesta would go for a toss thanks to blank calls. No caller ID was a wonderful thing.

Landlines were there with you through thick and thin. They were there when it rained, when the electricity went out, when you had to greet someone, and when you had to console someone. Calls were scratchy, but they wouldn’t drop off. They didn’t have a battery that died on you while you were on the phone with your crush. They didn’t heat up, turning one side of your face into a sweaty, sticky mess. In short, landlines didn’t die on you.

Unless of course you sat on them. Which at that point, is really your bad.