When You Called From the Public Phone Booth | Jaya Wagle
Updated: Dec 16, 2019
The phone booth stood around the corner from your women’s hostel, a black and yellow squat structure made of tin and wood, manned by a pot-bellied mustachioed man wearing shirts in bright hues of red, blue and green, day after day.
The ivy-green, push-button pay phone, on the ledge of the booth, carried your countless calls to the boy you thought was your boyfriend, but who was, you later learned, engaged to a girl in another city.
You called your parents and siblings from here, long distance—Bombay to Indore, 584.3 km by road—standing in a three by two booth inhaling stale, sweaty air, holding back tears, a forced perkiness in your voice. You heard the homesickness in your conversations, the false confidence of a twenty something single girl living in Bollywood, the loneliness of commuting on crowded public buses and trains, the excitement of your first job as a reporter for a Bollywood magazine, the weary politics of sharing a room with three roommates. You once called a co-worker from this booth, a local call, to iron out a misunderstanding and caught the mustachioed man, dressed in a neon pink shirt, listening in on your conversation.
This was the booth where you twisted the ivy-green cord of the phone and watched the noisy, smoke-spewing rickshaws rattle by as you talked to the Boy-Who-Was-Not-Your-Boyfriend, about movies, walks on Juhu beach, long bike rides on Marine Drive, “remember the time the waves crashed on the pavement during high tide, when we got wet and ate sweet roasted corn and spicy chaat, the water dripping down our shoes.”
One night under this booth’s faded awning you stood for an hour in pouring rain—waiting for the Boy-Who-Was-Not-Your-Boyfriend to pick you up for a date that didn’t happen—till the mustachioed man asked you gently to leave because it was late and he had to close the booth for the night and fold down the shade.
It was next to this booth, by the chaiwallah, where the Boy-Who-Was-Not-Your-Boyfriend dropped you off that last time after you both said your final goodbyes and you stood watching him ride off on his bike. The mustachioed man sipped chai from a dirty glass tumbler and watched you from the window of his booth as you walked away.
In the last eighteen years, on your bi-yearly trips to India, you haven’t found the time or desire to visit that squat booth—standing like a sentinel on the intersection of Good Shepherd Church and the open-air fish market in Andheri Chaar Raasta—holding your memories in that twisted, grimy ivy-green telephone cord.
After all these years, you sometimes wonder if the booth is still there. You wonder what happened to the mustachioed man who overheard your countless calls, who watched you squeeze into the three by two long-distance booth, and call home every Monday night, who observed your heartbreak, who overheard your break-up from Bollywood and who wished you luck when you hung up the phone one last time.
A former Indian expat, current US citizen, Jaya Wagle's fiction and non-fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Barrel House, Jellyfish Review, The Rumpus, Hobart, Little Fiction, Big Truths, The Write Launch, Litro, THAT Literary Review, and elsewhere. She has an MA in Creative Non-fiction from the University of North Texas where she is now an adjunct professor of World Lit and Developmental Writing. She lives in Fort Worth with her husband and fourteen-year old son.
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