Many stories around our dinner table begin with, “In the olden days...” with my parents telling us how it was when they first moved to Canada. The winters were longer and colder. There were way fewer South Asians, and everyone knew everyone else in the community.
“Not like when you attend a community event these days and it’s like a mela, but people hardly seem to know each other,” delivered with a sniff.
One had to make the trek to Gerrard India Bazaar to pick up precious Indian groceries.
“Once your mother had to make rasam with no dal and we had kadhi for a few days in a row because she ran out of toor dal but I got so busy at work I couldn’t take her grocery shopping.”
At this point in the discussion, “Cool! You could have had a pizza night every night!” is not the desired response!
Also, in the olden days, calls to India were prohibitively expensive. At a couple of dollars a minute and with poor connections, they were mostly limited to emergencies or the annual Diwali greetings.
Things began to change with the advent of phone cards. You had to dial an intimidating long list of digits before dialling the number you wanted to call, but now you could talk longer for fewer dollars. That is if the card actually had the number of minutes it promised. There were times you called only to be informed you were out of minutes when you could swear there should be at least 10 minutes left on it. Be that as it may, the phone cards generated much excitement and were hugely popular. Even now you can see remnants of posters advertising their services pasted on South Asian grocery store doors and windows.
Then the market opened up completely and with competition, the long distance rates plummeted.
Now you could call India for 20 cents a minute. No, wait, another company offered 15 cents. Yet another 10 cents a minute. Oh, those were exciting times!
“The rates continued to drop and we went from having to dial that long list of numbers that changed with every phone card to a shorter, easier to remember access code, to nothing at all,” says my dad.
Which brings me to the point of this family anecdote.
With no access code required, all you had to do was dial 011 (for international calls), followed by 91 (the code for India), followed by the code for the city you were calling, followed by the actual number.
The problem arose one day when my dad wanted to call family in Delhi.
He forgot the 011 part and dialled 91 (for India), followed by 11 (for Delhi). Before he could get to the rest of the number, he was interrupted by a voice.
“You have dialled 911. Is everything okay?”
My red-faced dad was left explaining that everything was indeed okay, he was just trying to call India.
At this point, “Dad, just enter your frequently-called numbers on your phone,” is not the wise retort!
– ARVIND KRISHNAN
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