“Electra telephono! Dmitri telephono! Theodore telephono!” These were costly international calls. They used to come to the only general land phone in the basement corridor of Fondation Hellenique inside the Cite Internationale Universitaire de Paris campus. Greek students would get calls from parents and friends in Greece. Whoever was in the corridor would lift the receiver then knock at the door of the relevant person.
I lived my early years in France inside this 100-acre unique park for students and academics in southern Paris, where the French government gave 40 countries space for residences. I had no official scholarship, so India House refused me a room. But Dr Georgoulis, a kind-hearted Sorbonne University professor in charge of Greek House, liked my paintings and accommodated me, a part-time art student. I paid a rent of 300 French francs per month from my salary of 500 francs that I got from working as a sweeper in a print shop. I could afford nothing else, so getting a 10 ft x 8 ft space within four walls, a 5 ft x 6 ft bed, wash basin, chair, reading table, shared toilet and kitchen outside was a godsend. From my basement skylight, I could see people’s legs walking in the garden. Weekends were boisterously busy for our corridor public phone. I could never expect a call from my parents in their underprivileged economic situation. Moreover, it wasn’t easy to call from India then. Only the affluent few had phones at home. For an international trunk-call booking, you had to visit the telephone exchange and a call could take hours or days in the mid-1970s. Happily, I learnt several Greek terms of endearment and swear words listening to the continuous telephone chatter outside my room.
The idea of personal calls enamoured everyone except inventor Alexander Graham Bell, who patented the first practical telephone in 1876. He considered the phone an intrusion and refused to have one in his study! Science-fiction writer and inventor Arthur C Clarke, most well-known for the screenplay of Stanley Kubrik’s film, 2001: A Space Odyessy, actually predicted in 1959 that “the time will come when we will be able to call a person anywhere on earth merely by dialing a number” and this will be through a “personal transceiver, so small and compact that every man carries one”. In fact, his vision included global positioning, so that “no one need ever again be