Before MTNL was set up in 1986, the city’s telephone company was known as Bombay Telephones (BT) run by the department of telecom (DOT) and earlier the P &T. In those days, the coin operated public phone was not a very common phenomenon. In fact, having a phone at home was not common and many gave out a neighbour’s care-of number. When the home phone was dead and that used to happen on a regular basis, one had to rely on the coin operated public phone which were not very common as they are today. I remember walking a good ten minutes to the Grant Road post office just to make a phone call.
The instruments used in those days were operated very differently. Firstly it was that black bulky iron vertical instrument with a long metallic wire for the handset. You had to lift the handset and dial (literally dial the round dial which went kut kut kut) the six digit Mumbai number. It was only when you had heard the voice at the other end that you dropped the coin. And as there was no limit to which you could talk for a rupee, you could jabber on for the entire day in that one rupee.
I remember the post man at the Grant road post office complaining that some smart alec used to try and save even the one rupee by punching a hole in the coin, tying a string to it and merrily using it to make umpteen number of calls till one day the string got stuck and he had to leave behind his ‘prized’ coin. The result was that the post office had to call the BT people to repair it and became more vigilant about people trying to make ‘free’ calls.
Some days back, I chanced upon this old telephone instrument at the Jaihind Hotel at Kala Ghoda. Krishnanand Tiwari who owns the hotel paid his homage to this now defunct piece which had served thousands of customers ever since his uncle had BT install the PCO some where in the late sixties. He adds that this was the only PCO in the whole of the Kala Ghoda and Dalal Street area. His restaurant’s PCO was so popular that when it went dead, he did not bother to complain as many of his customers would have already called up BT and registered the complaint saying “Jaihind can phone durust karo, kaam nahi kar raha hai”. His telephone had a stream of people making a beeline especially during lunch time. He also remembers how some people were cheeky enough to give out this telephone number to conduct their share market business and hang around the restaurant awaiting that incoming call.
The public pay phone has come a long way since then and you will be able to aptly see that in Chirodeep Chaudhuri’s exhibition of photographs titled The One-Rupee Entrepreneur dedicated to that all important red coin operated phone. These phones were photographed by him over a period of one year against different Mumbai backdrops such as an instrument kept on suitcases and trunks, in a travel agents booth, under a little temple on the wall, in the midst of a cold drinks rack, on a chaat counter and many more.
Chirodeep calls this instrument, the one rupee entrepreneur which according to him promotes enterprise. He explains that in a city like Mumbai where every one wants to maximize the returns from each square foot of land, he was awed on seeing how different kinds of businesses started installing the pay phone. This ‘side business’ generated an additional income without them having to pay any additional rent for the space utilized by this red box.
Chirodeep’s favorite is the one which he clicked outside a hair cutting saloon at Nagpada where the pay phone is kept outside against the drawing of a film star with hair style like Amitabh or Anil Kapoor.
So visit this exhibition and you will be able to see the red box that we pass by and use on a daily basis in a very different light.
The One Rupee Entrepreneur – Chirodeep Chaudhary
Till October 13, 2007. 11 am to 6.30 pm at Project 88, BMP Bldg., N A Sawant Marg, Near Colaba Fire Station, Colaba, Mumbai 400 025.