My phone has been surprisingly silent since this morning. I was pleasantly surprised until I realized somewhat later in the day that my phone was displaying a cryptic message: “Emergency calls only”. Having been a loyal Airtel customer for more than 3 years now (mainly because of the wonderful Airtel tune created by Rahman) – I realized that they had shut off my phone because of non-payment of my bill. Now that would have usually resulted me in rushing to the Airtel center and asking them not to have such tight sphincters – “a guy can be busy, right?” But this time – I was righteous. Because I had paid my bill way in advance. In fact I had overpaid. I immediately called 121 – “their anytime anywhere customer support service”. Apparently I was in the Twilight Zone because 121 was unavailable. As Mr.Bachchan mentioned in his blog about British Airways losing his luggage for the 18th (!) time – I was LIVID! I had trick up my sleeve though…I reached office and called their other hotline which not many people know about. I got through.

“This is #*(%#* (never get their name – they speak so fast and unclear), how may I help you?”
“My phone is not working.”
“I will certainly help you with that sir – can I have your phone number please?”
“Am I talking to <my name>?”
“What is the problem sir?” (Duh! Short attention span!)
“My phone isn’t working – I cannot make any phone calls. And my phone is giving me the message “emergency calls only” ”
“Have you tried switching on and off the phone?”
“Atleast 3 times”
“Please hold on – while I check the status of your account.” <Rahman. Not liking him so much right now>
“Sir…your bill payment date has passed.”
“Yes – I know. Can you tell me what my balance is?”
“-2766 rupees”
“And what does minus mean?” (Now is when I realize that rhetoric is lost on the masses.)
“It cannot be minus…there is an error. Basically you have to pay Rs.2766.” THE CHEEK.
“No Einstein, it means that I have a negative balance of Rs.2766 – and that is CREDIT in my account.”
“Sorry for the confusion sir…can you please hold on – I have to confirm this.”
“No…I am not waiting – can you please switch on my services NOW?”
“Just a moment sir…” (Back to Rahman. Ok…I just decided I like the Vodafone song better.)
“Sir…sorry for the trouble. But your services are functional.”
“My dear friend.” English didn’t work so I tried politeness. “I told you – it is not working! I cannot make or receive calls!”
“Sir…I understand. What I mean to say is that there is nothing wrong with the services on your phone. It is an Airtel problem and it will be fixed in the the next 15 minutes.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes sir…otherwise please call us back and we will assist you. Is their anything else I can help you with?”
“Yes…can you please tell my boss that it is not my fault?”
“Can you repeat that please?”
“Never mind!”

I hung up. Checked my watch – it was 10:00 AM. As the minutes ticked – I heard a colleague also speaking in loud tones with someone of the same IQ range as Airtel support. It was then I realized I was not alone. Every Airtel phone in my office was down. Upon further investigation – and after lots of rumours like “Vodafone has bought Airtel and has shut down their service.” to speculation like “Maybe it is a Firesale. A hacker attack on our communication networks. Like Die Hard 4.” – we find out that one of Airtel’s main towers has burnt down in a fire. Yep – the fire in the “firesale” was correct!

Can you believe it? Most of Mumbai has no Airtel network!!! That is atleast a couple of million subscribers (if not more) without connectivity. I am just waiting to read in the papers tomorrow about the losses to the financial hub of the country. A very important question pops up in my head – “Don’t they have a backup?”

It also throws another relevant issue – one of our over-dependence on technology and on being connected. This damn digital candybar in my hand didn’t exist a few years ago – and I remember being perfectly happy then. Well…what has happened is that our way of life has become more vulnerable to disruption than ever before. In short – it has become very easy for our lives to become paralysed. Isn’t that a happy feeling?

As for now – I can’t wait for the silly phone to come on…so that I can breathe air(tel) again.

P.S.: And thank God for MTNL landlines – which uses the same technology invented by Mr.Bell more than a century ago! You can’t burn that down!