The dirty phone call is one of those foreseeable and yet unforeseen side-effects of the telecommunications revolution. The oversight is understanding. The dirty stone tablet is hardly the sort of thing a pervert can dash off at a moment’s notice. Ditto for the other mediums. The dirty palm leaf, the dirty papyrus, and the dirty scroll all had their in-built limitations. Literacy, for one. You can’t keep masses of women illiterate and expect them to read your dirty writing. And keeping dirt dirty is hard; writing so very often turns dirt into literature. But the phone changed all that. Here was a medium using a sense organ very hard to silence: the ear. Here was a medium perfectly suited for the dirty message.
In Manjula Padmanabhan’s story, a woman receives one of these dirty phone calls. What happens next is also one of those foreseeable and yet unforeseen consequences of human nature. She receives the dirty phone call and she also gets it. Why is this foreseeable? Because it is a Manjula Padmanabhan story. Expect the unexpected.
— Anil Menon
The Bombay Literary Magazine
Dirty Phone Calls
It used to be so easy. You picked up a phone, dialled numbers at random. Waited until the call connected. If the person on the other end was a man, a child, an older person or a servant, you hung up.
You kept trying numbers until you heard a young woman’s voice.
“Hello?” she’d say.
Then you’d wait again, just a couple of pulse beats, until she said it again. This time there would be a note of uncertainty in her voice, “…hello?”
Then you’d say, softly, but clearly, “Want a fuck?”
That’s if you were a guy.
If you were a girl, it would be a little different.
What? You’re surprised? That girls did this stuff?
Of course, we did.
Still do. Even though some of us aren’t girls any more. Me for instance. I’m not a girl. Not even really a woman, if you go by the biological stuff. But, yah. I still do it.
It was easier in those days only in the sense that those old black Bakelite phones – remember them? Big and clunky, with rotary dials? – could not display the caller’s number.
The first time, for me was … oh my God. Such a high.
I had recently begun earning a living as a rookie journalist with a
small-circulation trade-magazine called Diamond News, in the city I still call Bombay. I was just out of college. Nothing more than an Eng Lit BA in my nervous little hands. The office was located in the renovated hallway of one of those old grey buildings along MG Road. The elevator door clanked open directly into our Editorial Department. Which was also its only room.
The editor, a nice old man who smelled of Aramis and dhansak, was out to lunch at the nearby Gymkhana Club that day. Nadia the secretary and I were two thirds of the staff. The final third was the driver-cum-peon. He was out too, of course, with his employer.
The phone rang. I was closer to it. Picking up the handset, I held the black muffin-shaped receiver to my ear and said, “Diamond News, hello?”
Silence. I drew in a breath and said again, “Hello?”
Whereupon a wet, disease-laden wheeze oozed into my brain. It was filled with pus and phlegm, a stinking bolus of filth rendered in sound.
My instinct was to fling the instrument away but of course I did no such thing. Phones were precious things in those days. No one risked damaging the instrument because getting a replacement was the equivalent of flying to the Moon and back.
Instead I held the thing away from my head, covered the mouth piece and said to Nadia, who had looked up, “Wheezer.” He was one of the regulars.
“Eh!” said Nadia, with a scornful curl of her young pink lips, “What’re you waiting for? Slam it down!” The received wisdom in regard to nuisance calls was Never Encourage the Caller.
But there was a problem with this sage advice. Putting the receiver down did nothing to end the call. In those bad old days, only the caller could terminate.
Keeping my hand over the mouth-piece, I said to Nadia, “So long as I keep holding, at least we’ll hear the click when he’s disconnected, no?”
“Don’t waste your time,” said Nadia. “This one doesn’t disconnect until we disconnect. Even then, he sometimes keeps the line open for hours. Probably puts it down, walks away from it and then forgets. What does he care? It costs him almost nothing. Meanwhile he knows that at our end, we’re lying on the floor with our paws in the air. Waiting for His Highness to shit on us.” Nadia had colourful turns of phrase that she said came from her boarding school days.
What she said about Mucus Man was true. I had been present on one of these previous occasions. He had kept the line open for two hours continuously. Our little office could not afford two lines. So if he didn’t disconnect, we could neither receive calls nor make them. People trying to get through to us would hear an “engaged” signal. In theory, we could go downstairs and across two side-streets to get to an Irani shop, to use their public phone to call the Telephone Exchange in order to lodge a complaint. In practice, of course, we never did this. In terms of nuisance caused, the caller had achieved his purpose – that is, of bothering us – either way.
That day, I stuffed my hankie into the mouth-piece and put the handset down. Perhaps Wheezer understood that I was no longer actively holding the phone, or for whatever other reason, he disconnected after a mere five minutes. There was a faint click, followed by the adenoidal paaaaarp of a healthy dial-tone.
I returned the handset to its cradle then got my sandwiches out. Nadia and I spread a sheet of newsprint on our shared work table. Then she got out her mutton lacy-cutlets and two slices of buttered bread as we settled down to our respective lunches.
All the while, as we munched and chatted about this and that, I was thinking about the power that callers like Wheezer wielded over Nadia and myself. An unknown creep whose only weapon was a telephone line could nevertheless keep us in his thrall for hours at a time.
True, it didn’t cause us any physical harm. Not in the obvious, visible sense of broken skin and spilled blood. But in the less-obvious sense? If one considers that time and life are practically the same thing? Then yes: Wheezer Geezer was harming us. He was draining precious time away from us while gaining pleasure for himself.
I didn’t care whether or not he and others like himself literally masturbated to the sounds of young female strangers saying “hello?” followed by angry yelps, howls of protest, streams of abuse or whatever it is that some of us do when responding to dirty phone calls. What maddened me was the ease with which a complete stranger could dig his finger into my life and pull out an hour or two from it.
It also maddened me that it maddened me.
Why couldn’t I just erase the call, the voice, the sound, all of it, from my mind? Why, instead, did those infuriating prods play in a continuous loop in my mind? Why did the very act of losing a short amount of my time to an irritating stranger result in a much greater waste of time in the form of fury, frustration and sometimes – for other women, if not actually for me – even bouts of hysterical crying?
Abruptly, while I was still in mid-sandwich, I looked up at Nadia and asked, “Have you ever done something like this yourself?” She frowned in my direction, not catching the drift of my thoughts. “Dirty phone calls, I mean. Have you ever made one?”
She continued frowning, but with her expressive mouth twisted up in a smirk said, “Arre, no-oo? Why should I bother! Just to make some other dame squeak!”
“Not a dame!” I snapped, surprised that she didn’t get it immediately. I put down my sandwich and stood up. “I meant, a guy,” I said, as I reached for the phone. “Have you ever called a guy and said dirty things to him?”
“Neh,” said Nadia, no longer smirking now. “I have better things to do with my – wait! What’re you doing?” She would have made a grab for the instrument but I had picked the whole thing up, base as well as hand set and brought it around to my side of the lunch table. It was now out of her reach, trailing its great long length of khaki-coloured cable.
“I’m making a call,” I said, as I dialled.
“Wait! What – who – are you calling?”
“Men’s hostel,” I said. A couple of mates from my Elphinstone days had lived in Students’ Housing. The establishment had a regular phone, with the main body of the instrument contained in such a way that it could not be removed from the reception desk. If it rang, anyone passing by could pick up the handset to answer it. I knew the number by heart. In the evenings, it was continuously engaged but during the day, it often rang piteously for many minutes before someone answered.
“It’s ringing,” I said.
“Stop it,” said Nadia. “Shut up. Put it down!”
The ringing stopped. A young man’s voice entered the temple of my ear. “Hallo?” he said, his voice blurry with late adolescence, a saw-toothed edge still clinging to it.
Nadia was looking at me with her big eyes flaring wide, the precisely mascaraed lashes scraping the lower boundary of her finely plucked eyebrows. “Noooo!” she breathed out in a loud whisper. “Stop! You’ve got to stop!”
“HallOO?” said the young bull-frog at the other end. “Who’s speaking?”
Looking directly at Nadia as I spoke, I said, in an exaggeratedly high voice,
“Sir … sir … DO YOU WANT TO FUCK?” I clapped my hand over the mouth-piece and began to spasm with laughter. From the earpiece came a disjointed squawk. “Wh-AAAT?” said the young man at the other end. His voice cracked in mid-sentence, going from bull frog to startled mouse. “What … (squeak) … whaddid you sayyyy?”
Nadia sprang up and lunged over the whole width of the table to slam down the two silvery buttons nestled within the hand-set’s cradle. “STOP!” she shouted, as she broke the connection.
But I was done. I had swallowed a fountain of stars. I was beaming with wild light. I wanted to scream or cry. In fact I did cry, in the sense that my eyes began to leak tears.
“Oh wow,” I said, “oh wowowow!” At the time, I could not understand why the relatively simple thing I had done – a mere phone call, an exchange of very common words – had had such an extraordinary effect on me.
Later, though, I understood: it was because I had broken a taboo.
It was not one of the great ones. Certainly not one that anyone had warned me against breaking. Yet: belonging as I did to that tribe of young women brought up in super-genteelity, the mere thought of breaking social taboos was taboo.
Here now was one of them, lying in splinters around me: Thou Shalt Not Use the Phone for Saying Dirty Words to Strange Men. And I felt like a bird released from a cage it had not even known it was contained within.
Nadia was unimpressed. Outraged. “It’s not right,” she said, as she began to clear the lunch things away. Reaching across the table had caused her own lunch box to be upended, spilling onto the newsprint. Half a lacy cutlet remained and one of her buttered slices had slipped onto the floor. She picked it up with the tips of her long, red-lacquered nails, and bundled it along with everything from our lunch within the sheet of newsprint. Her actions were sharp-angled and vicious. “It’s wrong to … to … use the office phone for such calls,” she said, while compacting the newsprint into a tight, hard ball.
I said nothing. I was brimming over with delight.
“Two wrongs don’t make a right,” she was saying. “Just because some fools get their kicks from saying dirty things to dames doesn’t meant that you …” She swivelled around to where there was a garbage bin, in one corner of the office. Threw the remains of our lunch inside and returned. She was on her side of the desk, her eyelids lowered, refusing to look up at me. When she blinked, I saw a tear escape down her cheek. She dashed it away at once, using the heel of her palm. “Why lower ourselves to their level,” she said. It wasn’t a question. “Have some shame. Have some respect for yourself.”
I realized in that moment that I didn’t care what Nadia thought of me. Looking back on that moment, I saw that I had changed my destiny, all in a twinkling. I had crossed a boundary, from being genteel to the uncharted country that lies beyond. I had become different to Nadia in that I did not care what she thought of me and very possibly, would not care what others thought of me either. It was something that I’d have to examine at some later time, when I was able to think through all that was unexpectedly so new and unexplored.
In that moment, at that time, while acknowledging this change to myself, I also knew that it would cost me very little to apologize.
“I’m sorry,” I said, feeling nothing and suppressing the smile that was trying to establish itself on my face. “Yes, I know it’s wrong. I didn’t mean to upset you, Nadia. I promise I won’t do it again … ” In my mind, I added, “… in the office.”
I was as good as my word. I never used that phone again.
Instead I used any instrument that I was left alone with for long enough to make a call and relieve myself of my payload of disturbing messages. I was a journalist, after all. Using phones was part of my trade. Having long lists of names and numbers was part of my trade too.
None of the subsequent calls I made had the same effect on me as that very first one. But the act of making such calls continues to provide me with a complex pleasure. Even to this day. It’s hard to define. Not sexual and yet, there’s a sexual element. I’ve only once ever called a woman with a dirty payload to deliver. And that was for a very specific reason. All the rest have been men. So, in that sense, there’s a definite gender-based selection.
As I had discovered early on, there wasn’t too much fun to be had from using the same combinations of words that men use. After all, aside from the initial shock of being propositioned over the phone by an unfamiliar woman, many men, if given the chance to recover their poise, might light up and say, “Yes! Of course, I wanna fuck!”
If I never had that happen to me it’s probably because I never waited long enough. The moment I heard the shocked “Whaaaaat??” I got my adrenaline rush and put the phone down.
The first time I reconsidered the choice of words was also the first time I did it in the company of another girl. I’ll call her Sulu. We were both trainees at the time, with the Indian Express at Express Towers at Nariman Point. Working the night shift.
“Want to have some fun?” said Sulu, picking up the receiver on one of the low-slung plastic phones that now sat on the corners of most desks in most offices. Her long hair flowed down her back in a black tide of wiry curls. She wore a tie-dyed scarf knotted around her neck like a giant tie, over a black tee-shirt and black jeans.
“Like what?” I said, glancing across at her while exhaling a thin stream of cigarette smoke.
She measured me with her eyes for a few potent seconds before saying, “Like this–” as she began to dial. When she was done, she clicked down on a button that redirected the sound to a small speaker. We both heard the burring sound of a ring-tone.
“It’s three a.m.,” I said, meaning that most people would be asleep at this time. But she held her finger up to her mouth asking for silence, while continuing to hold the ear-piece to her ear.
Sure enough, after about ten cycles, there was a click and a man’s voice came in over the speaker. It was chocolate brown with sleep, growly and thick. “H-hello?” he said. “Who’s this … who …”
Sulu now pinched the front of her nose to disguise the sound of her voice and, assuming a sing-song accent of the kind that might belong to a telephone operator, said, “Hello … hello? Mr Macheen?”
The man’s voice, still growly with sleep, said, “Machan. WHO–”
“Mr Machan, you have a daughter?”
“Your daughter is fucking your driver.”
“HANNH??” he roared, “–bastard, who’s this – I’ll …”
Sulu put the phone down. Looking up at me with her eyes sparkling, laughter spilling from her in breathy jerks, she said, when she could find her voice, “…ever done that before?”
My own eyes must have been starting from my face, like in a cartoon of a hungry wolf. “–never like that!” I stammered, finally. I was hugely impressed: that she knew the victim’s name, that she’d faked her accent and most of all, that she hadn’t suggested having sex with him. Instead, she’d whacked him hard, in a place where he was defenceless and at a time of day when he was at his most unprepared.
It was fabulous.
When we talked about it later and when I’d tried out this new approach, of not offering sex but instead causing anguish through threats of violence and unseemly insinuations, we both agreed that it was a very specialized form of pleasure. Cerebral, rather than sexual. A type of female vigilantism.
“Of course, it’s not right,” said Sulu, when I mentioned Nadia’s response. I’d never forgotten it, though it was at least five years in my past by this time. “But it’s tit for tat, you know? I use the phone numbers of men I’ve either met for interviews or maybe seen in press conferences. I target anyone I think of as a shit-head. I do it only once per person. I usually call from hotel lobbies and pay-phones. This was the first time I used the office phone.”
“Ever been caught?” I asked. She shook her head. “Me neither,” I said.
The only other time I did it in company was many years later. A celebrity feminist author had organized her friends for a fiftieth birthday. I had been invited as a friend of her publisher’s. Very possibly, the fact that I was the book’s page editor at a mass circulation weekly may have contributed towards my inclusion.
Nearing the end of the evening, when only a select group of women remained, the hostess dragged her phone out from where it normally lived, by the television. Snuffling and sniggering like a pack of hyenas, because we were all tipsy by then, we took turns calling different men, each one known to someone in the group, each one called by a woman unknown to him.
Phones had grown in sophistication. There was caller ID. “… but this is a private number,” giggled the hostess, as she turned on the speaker. “Their display will read Number Blocked by Caller! Have no fear!”
So. We had no fear. We called ex-husbands and violent boyfriends connected to the ladies present. We called philandering sons-in-law and abusive brothers-in-law. Arrogant CEOs and right-wing publishers. Even one politician.
In the early hours of that morning, as my husband’s sleepy company driver drove me home to Nepean Sea Road, I felt a weight upon my spirit.
It wasn’t difficult to locate the source of the weight.
The messages that had been transmitted that night had been beyond vile. I would be ashamed to write them down here, even though they weren’t my thoughts or ideas. In my mind, I can still see the flushed cheeks and bright eyes of the women describing acts of atrocious violence and degrading, dehumanizing behaviour. They spoke in calm sweet voices, pouring the most outrageous suggestions into the phone’s pearl-pink mouthpiece. I can still hear the raw shock and just-dawning rage in the voices of those who had made the mistake of answering their phones that night.
For the first time ever, I found myself pitying them. These men. These weak and wretched beings who had lost their way. In the guttural sounds they made, in the low yelps and snorts they emitted, I heard people. Not just men.
It was a turning point for me.
Yes, some of the men we called that night had betrayed their wives and lovers. Raped their sisters-in-law. Beaten their servants and employees. There was no condoning their actions. Yet … those punishments? Those acts described over the phone, of such unholy and cruel defilements? I found myself wanting to remove myself from this sisterhood of ghouls. I did not want membership in their midst.
The ability to feel compassion even for those who are not good or kind was not a familiar sensation for me. As a journalist, I rather prided myself on make clear distinctions between right and wrong. What we’d done that night had not been especially wrong. No blood was spilled after all. No limbs had been broken. Yet it sickened me to have been present. In all the years that I had practised my little vice, it had never occurred to me to explore such depths of filth, in words.
When it was my turn to make a call, I used the formula from my early days and said the words, “Hiya, Mr Patel! How about a fuck?” and put the phone down right away. Smiled and shrugged at the other women. They looked back with pitying expressions.
Still later, once I was home and had changed into my caftan, I remember thinking This was what it means to be older!
I don’t know if I would call it wiser.
As I said at the start, I’ve not stopped making dirty phone calls.
Nowadays, in this age of SmartPhones, it’s possible to actually be seated in the same room as the man I am targeting. My ID is suppressed. I can see him, while he does not notice me.
My voice has a life-long smoker’s heavy rasp and has always been low. It’s possible that a man who answers an incoming call me from doesn’t know whether it’s a man or a woman speaking when I say, “Hello! Mr Santosh?”
“Santosh here. Who’s this?” he replies.
“A well-wisher,” I say, smiling. I know that smiling communicates a friendly intention even when the person I’m speaking to can’t see me. I am no longer facing in his direction. Even if he happens to look around involuntarily for someone who might know him, he will not notice me.
“What’s that?” he might say, trying to make sense of the call. “I’m not sure I–”
“Be kind to your wife,” I say. “Plant more trees. Believe in climate change.”
“Live long and prosper,” I say.
Then I end the call.
Manjula Padmanabhan (b. 1953) is an award-winning Indian playwright, artist, cartoonist and writer, living in Newport (RI), USA. She is the author of 14 books of prose and plays and has illustrated over 20 books for children.
Manjula Padmanabhan created the banner Image for The Bombay Literary Magazine. About its construction, she wrote:
“The banner graphic is purely electronic. I usually draw on paper, in pencil, then ink the simple line drawing, then scan, then manipulate in PhotoShop. But if I can break down the drawing to a few simple shapes? Then I use Ph’Shop’s editing tools to create a graphic entirely in pixels.”
All rights reserved by the artist.