Then and Now
When my 11 years old daughter was doing her English letter writing homework, I got to explaining to her that we used to write inland letters (recall those 35 paise blue papers, which later became 50 paise and were probably around 75 paise or Rs 1 when I eventually stopped using them) and that it used to typically take 3-4 days for it to reach its destination. The receiving person may or may not reply immediately, so it was easily at least 10-15 days or even a month before we would get to hear from the other side. She asked innocently “Papa, why didn’t you just send them an email or if it was urgent why not just call them on their mobile phone?”
It is difficult for my daughter to imagine a life without these technologies and devices and I could not help but smile. It also took me back many many years and comparisons with our lives today just started to happen. In comparison to today, those days seem so simple and relaxed. I capture here a few of those thoughts.
Inland letters for longer letters, post cards for shorter ones and telegrams (like today’s SMS) was the way I recall my life back in early 1980s. The inland letters would typically start with appropriate regards to whomsoever it was being written, a page full of incidents to write and end with regards to elders and love to all those younger than self. There was space provided to write the address, which automatically came from memory. We hardly had to look up the directory for address of any of our relatives (and so was the case for telephone numbers). Then a walk to nearest letter box, the red colored big box either located next to the post office or placed at additional locations for the convenience of people, and had a clearance time of typically 10.30 am and then 2.00 pm. Occasionally I would arrive at the letter box at the time the postman would be clearing the letters and it was with excitement that I would watch the process and happily deposit my letter directly in his bag rather than the letter box. Then would start a patient waiting for the reply that I knew was at least 2 weeks in future. Many times it would take longer, and we would continue to wait patiently.
Today’s generation with emails and mobiles seems to have lost this virtue of patience. Because these things provide instant connectivity, the expectation is also to receive instant responses and when not received, people become impatient. It sometimes is difficult to get past the daily morning routine without the mobile ringing some 10 times and when I finally am ready and get to pick up the phone, the first question “Where were you? I was so worried”. Worried? Why? Isn’t going to bathroom in the morning a common practice? I have seen so many people today answering mobile phones when answering natures call. Eeeeeeeeeeeks! What’s the hurry? The world isn’t going to end. You could wait a few minutes, finish your work and then answer the phone. And if the world is really going to end, you anyway won’t achieve much by answering immediately. You walk on the streets today and easily at least half the people around you would be using their mobile phones and walking with their heads down, eyes glued to the mobile screen, either reading a message or typing a response, oblivious of that speeding vehicle coming straight towards them. As the vehicle will come to a screeching halt, they look up, eyes meet that of the driver and surprisingly they even have the guts to glare at the driver, as if it was his/her fault.
Anyway, somewhere back in late 1980s we got our first phone, that big black monster. Am sure some of you would recall it. It was numbers written below a circular dial and would make interesting “whhhrrriiiinng” noise when you would dial a number. This model of the phone existed for many years and the time it took to dial a number was directly proportional to the kind of digits the phone number had. 1 was shortest to dial and 0 took the longest. Imagine dialing a digit and then wait for the circular dial to rotate back before you could dial the next digit. It wasn’t till many years after that the tone dialing phones came into existence where you could now press individual digits and thus got to dial much faster.
When the phones had first come into being, they had come with various rate slabs. It was very costly to make day time calls, especially those to out station (i.e. long distance). We had local dialing rates, which were reasonable, and then we had national dialing (called subscriber’s trunk dialing, STD) and finally international dialing (ISD). The national dialing used to be cheapest after 11 pm and so was international dialing and for quite some time, we could just not dial international numbers directly from the phone. We had to call the operator, give the international number and wait for hours to get the call connected. The call may often not come through or quality would be bad. A call for just about 10-15 seconds would easily cost upwards of Rs. 200.
Towards end of 1999 rate optimizations had started to happen and the slabs had reduced significantly, but still making a daytime national call was a strict no-no and used only for official work. I recall that during my courtship time in December 1999, we would wait till 9.30 pm to talk and then also typically keep an eye on the watch. These days you can just pick up the phone any time of the day and just about call any number, local, national or even international. With things like chat, Skype, Whatsap twitter, Facebook etc. people are connected all the time.
I was talking about patience earlier and this staying connected always has significantly impacted it. Earlier when travelling to Pune to Delhi, we would make a phone call before leaving home in Pune and then directly meet up with our relatives at the Delhi station about 30 hrs later with no communication in between. Today you make a phone call from home, then when seated in train (or plane) with possibly 10 twitter updates in between, then from every station and finally when about to reach. The about to reach call is surely helpful as the announcements at station are seldom helpful. But so many additional calls? However there is another angle to it as well. I just travelled by train from Delhi to Pune and sent about 10 SMS sharing updates at different time. True that they could not do anything with the fact that the train was running late, but the ability to send and receive SMSs somehow gave that feeling of being connected with the family, even while being many miles apart.
Another aspect of life that has changed significantly is television. I recall our first television was from a company called ElectraVision, and it came with a cabinet with stands and shutter and was black and white TV. The only channel to view was Doordarshan (DD for short). It had very limited hours of telecast daily with a bit more on weekends and these were also frequently interrupted with signage like “rukavat ke liye khed hai” (sorry for interruption). Telecast on DD would start with a 7 band gray scale being displayed on the screen (later 7 colors) with its typical theme music (recall Hrithik singing it in Zingadi Na Milegi Dobara).
There was a program called Saptahiki that would state all the programs that would telecast in the coming week and I recall we would sit with a diary making note of which one we would like to watch. Our favorite being Chitrahar (hindi film songs program) and a Hindi movie itself that was telecast on Sunday evening. There used to be a 8 pm or so Hindi news and repeat of that in English an hour later and due to lack of anything else to watch, many people used to watch both the news programs. The single channel with limited programs went on for years and it allowed us kids ample time to do our studies, play in the evenings and then reach back home to watch the 1-2 programs for that evening (if there were any of interest).
When telecast of DD 2 started many people had to upgrade their TV as they could not watch more than one channel on theirs. At that time came TVs with 10 channels and we would wonder, why have so many additional channels? And yes, TVs had become color as well. Our first color TV was from Crown and these were the bulky ones with sufficient gadgetry behind the screen unlike the flat panel LCD and LED TVs that are becoming common today. Eventually TVs that supported 100 channels came and # channels had started to go up with regional channels also kicking in. There were some innovations like TV + Radio, TV + Cassette player etc. and TV with picture in picture option as well that allowed you to view two channels at the same time, one full screen and another like a small postcard view on top corner. Personally I feel it was a good innovation and should have survived, because it allowed one to easily follow 1 main channel and keep an eye on the second one and switch when appropriate, rather than keep flipping back and forth.
TV serials were typically for 13 episodes and mostly were either short independent stories, or even if a big continuous one, would finish in 13 episodes. Hum log was the first long running serial that ran for one full year with 52 episodes (a serial used to come only once a week in those days). The trend then caught on with others like Buniyaad, Ramayan, Mahabharat, Shanti, Yeh jo Hai Zindagi Dekh Bhai Dekh etc. By mid 90s DD had lost its monopoly and many of us had shifted to viewing serials on other channels, though would return to DD for Chitrahaar and few other serials like Show Theme etc.
Today all the 100 channels are pretty much occupied and not just the quantity but the quality of transmission has increased. These days you almost never see the “rukavat ke liye khed hai”. There are interruptions due to heavy rains when the dish fails to catch the signal, but otherwise it is mostly uninterrupted 24x7 telecast on different channels. During our initial years of having a TV, due to the transmission quality we had to frequently adjust the direction of the antenna to get good quality signal. I recall our neighbor would be up on the terrace every other day and trying to fix the antenna position. With every few degrees turn, he would call, and his son would shout back from below “picture is fine, but too many spots” and he would then turn it a few degrees more.
With the advancement of technology, the TV programs can be watched on mobile phones, computers etc. and devices have become richer and richer with features. The transmission quality has gone up from the antenna days to cable TV to dish TV to HD and so on. So has the other areas like tape audio and video cassettes, to LPs to CD ROMS and VCDs to DVD, to HD to Blue Ray and so on. More and more information is packed in smaller and smaller space. You can easily record and watch your program on your TV’s set top box or watch these on YouTube. In the earlier days, a program missed, meant it is missed and there was no way to see it again unless there was a repeat telecast, which was not so frequent.
When we were kids creating a school project could mean long hours and trying to figure out ways and means to get the right kind of information. Today we have internet. The information boom has been just enormous and you can literally find almost anything on the net (it helped me find the links for this blog). While, yes, there is too much of information and all kinds of it and some of it we would prefer to be not there, but there is no denying that internet boom has done wonders to data connectivity and information availability.I could go on and on, on this topic, but I just wanted to capture a few things about how we grew up and how things are today. Things that our kids take for granted today didn’t even exist back then. Few years from now, what is novel today would have become commodity or may also be on the path of becoming extinct and some new ways of doing things would have come up for as they say – change is the only constant.