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Silence is underrated – an absurd walk down memory lane.

(Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash)

My sister and I were reminiscing yesterday, mostly about my grandpa and his sheer badassery. A stringy beanpole of a man, grandpa (or Thatha as we called him), was a force of nature. Bright, articulate, and an absolute whiz at crosswords, he introduced us to Shakespeare and Wodehouse, the latter birthing in him a fondness for puns and wordplay. He was loaded with self-deprecating anecdotes — his favorite was the one about how he was napping after a huge lunch when India won independence from the British Monarchy. He loved the sillier side of life and was my best friend and confidante growing up.

I was poking through the blog archives and came across this old entry featuring Thatha. I’ve spruced it up a bit and added some details I’d missed the first time around. So without further ado, I present to you the tale of — *trumpet sounds* — “Thatha and the crank caller.”

Remember the “blank/crank call” phenomenon of the 90s? This was before Caller ID or cell phones. Some of you know what I’m talking about, probably having lived through it yourself. But for those of you raising your eyebrows, here’s what would happen:

Every so often, the landline would ring. You would pick up the receiver and say “hello” only to encounter complete silence or worse — creepy breathing from the other side. You would gulp and say hello a few more times. Your mom would ask, “who is it” in an increasingly loud voice, and your dad would say, “give me the phone. I’ll handle it.” Then all hell would break loose. Mom’s nostrils would flare, and Dad would yell some choice expletives into the hot receiver. You’d roll your eyes and go back to watching TV.

This happened so often that after a while, I stopped answering the phone. I’d let my dad handle the crank calls and expand his swearwords vocabulary. And soon, it became a thing at home. When mom felt crabby, she’d look at the phone wistfully, willing it to ring so she’d have someone to dump her wrath on. And sometimes they were a Godsend — the phone ringing just as we were entering a dicey discussion about my grades (I could have kissed the crank caller then.) But often, they came at the most inopportune moments — during Saturday morning cartoons. Or worse, when a young Sachin Tendulkar hit a sixer/ get clean bowled to end the match. I could have throttled the crank caller with his phone cord then.

One hectic summer, we received no less than 5 crank calls a week. Dad was developing a sore throat from all the yelling-into-the-phone, so he called a family meeting.

“This must stop,” he whispered. “Big inconvenience, answering the phone for bloody, wasteful calls,” he continued, his face turning an alarming shade of red. My mom nodded furiously. The Titan Cup was just around the corner. A hardcore cricket fan, she wanted nothing and no one’s heavy breathing to interrupt her games.

“Should we call the police?” she asked. After all the (empty) police threats she had threatened the crank caller with, she felt it was time to keep her end of the deal.

“No, no police,” said Dad gruffly. “How will they trace the bloody buggers?”

He sat there chewing his mustache. “And which police station will I call anyway?” he blurted. Then, as if a thought occurred to him, he peered at Mom. “I don’t want to bribe anyone!” he growled as if she had suggested buying the entire police force with the family gold.

At the word “bribe,” Thatha, who’d been nodding drowsily in the corner, perked up. Generations of South Indian blood flowed in his old veins. Along with a fondness for filter coffee, he had inherited a strong tendency to never part with his money unless forced to. “Bribe?” he barked. “What nonsense.”

“It’s all the crank calls,” Dad mumbled and explained the whole situation to him.

When he’d finished, Thatha leaned back and steepled his fingers. “I know how to handle those rascals,” he said glibly before sharing his secret. Apparently, all summer, he had spent squawking at his own bunch of crank callers. Then he’d gotten smart.

Every time the phone rang, he’d pick up the receiver and remain silent. No “hellos” or “Who’s there?” Occasionally he did some heavy breathing of his own.

The crank callers were nonplussed. Imagine this:

Ring Ring.

Thatha-………

Crank caller-……….

Thatha-………

Crank caller-……….

Then, Crank Caller- *heavy, creepy breathing*

Thatha: *wheezy, asthmatic breathing*

After a few rounds of this, the caller hung up. From then on, every time he got a crank call, Thatha did his silent spiel again. The last time, the caller broke protocol, let out a muffled oath, and slammed the phone down. And was never heard from again. The way Thatha says it, the crank callers looked at their list of phone numbers and crossed out his with a big red X.

His story finished; Thatha looked around to awed silence from all of us. The “slow clap” hadn’t been invented in the 90s, or else we would have done it. There was palpable excitement — and dare I say, hope — in the room. As fate would have it, the phone rang 15 minutes later. With the air of a surgeon approaching a delicate procedure, Thatha raised his hand. “Let me handle this.”

He picked up the phone, hit the speaker button, and did his thing. The silent technique was masterful. His patience during the awkward hush was admirable. Then we heard a distinct click and the dial tone.

We were speechless (which by itself is an impressive feat in a South Indian family). Over the next few weeks, we adopted his strategy. One day, the crank calls stopped, and we’ve never had one since.

That night at dinner, Thatha got first dibs on everything — the tv remote, the best seat at the dining table, the sambar, and dessert. Mom praised him, and Dad uncorked a bottle to celebrate the occasion. “Oh, what the hell,” I thought! “The old boy had earned it!”

After an exciting 98 years, my Thatha passed away a few summers ago. The usual people: his family, friends, acquaintances, his community missed him.

But I like to think that a particular creep sits somewhere in the world, looking at his old, rotary phone. And raises a glass of filter coffee for the man who ended it all!

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