Mobile maniacs

The invention of cellphone or mobile phone has been a boon in many ways, such as the ability to contact a person anywhere in the world, locating friends lost in a crowd or getting help in case of a vehicle breakdown. But indiscriminate use of this instrument has its disadvantages, too. Consider the following scenario.

You are in the office of a government official whose appointment you long sought but got only now. You introduce yourself and he opens the file that contains the material relevant to your case. As he peruses the file, you begin to hope that at last you will receive a just solution to your problem. But you hoped too soon. For, uninvited and without knocking, a fellow barges in and sits besides you posing his problem to the official. You will, naturally, resent this intrusion and expect the official to show the intruder the door with the comment that he comes with a prior appointment, just as you did. Instead, as if under some compulsion, the official gives the fellow a patient hearing and suitable advice. And then, as the intruder leaves the room, the official closes your file and tells you that he has to rush for a meeting and he will write to you suitably, which you know will never happen.
This scenario may appear far-fetched. But it will appear quite natural if we modify it to one wherein the intruder does not physically intrude but calls the official on his cellphone. And, without actually coming to see the government official, the fellow gets his job done by talking on his mobile phone.
This modified scenario is not uncommon but that does not mean the action of the intruder is justified. The official’s time, as per the pre-arranged appointment, was promised to you and the intruder had no right to intrude in person or by calling on the cellphone. The correct response of the official would have been that he is busy with some work and could the caller call back later at a specified time or write his problem and mail it to the government department.
But the cellphone appears to hold some mysterious power over the person receiving the call, such that s/he is powerless to tell the caller to call later as the present time is not convenient. Rather, the caller feels obliged to reply and continue the conversation. Why should the time and occasion for the call be the privilege of the caller and not that of the person called?
There is more to it though even from the caller’s point of view. Sir Edmund Hillary was asked why he wanted to climb the Mount Everest, and his reply was, “because it is there”. Likewise, a mobile phone owner feels the urge that s/he must use her/his mobile phone because it is there.
Notice how quickly the starved souls travelling in an aircraft grab their mobiles and start talking as soon as the pilot permits the use of cellphones on landing. Watching them, I wonder if they are worried that their driver has had a heart attack or that the person they want to meet has absconded. What did they do in the pre-mobile era? If they managed without this information in those days why has it become so urgent now? I believe that they use the mobile phone because it is there.
There are two types of mobile maniacs. There are those who are socially more responsible and try, where possible, to seek a lonely corner to carry out their vital conversation. There they stand isolated, like another species also a victim of recent laws, the smokers. Or, perhaps, experiencing parental punishment of “time out” in their second childhood. One draws the conclusion that this conversation was more important than the concert or lecture they came to attend. The bottomline is, of course, that after getting the mobile phone they cannot resist talking on it.
The second type of mobile maniacs are even funnier. In the old days, a person talking to himself/herself was considered mad, drunk or a weirdo of the kind found in downtown bus termini of run down cities. Now you find them everywhere. They are sophisticated, well-to-do people who possess a device that absolves them from holding the phone to their ear. So while travelling in a coach if you suddenly find the guy in the seat ahead talking to nobody around, do not think that he has gone mad. He is simply enjoying a long conversation without the trouble of having to hold the handset to his ear.
All these aspects of mobile mania could be dismissed as examples of human frailty, but for a sinister aspect as illustrated by a real-life incident in the residential area where I live: A lady driving her car started talking on her mobile phone and, in the process, lost control of her car. By the time she could react, the car mounted the footpath and hit a bystander who lost both his legs. The lady went unpunished as far as I know.
Once in Paris, my companion who was driving the car, sought to use his cellphone to inform the person waiting at the destination that he was five minutes away. The traffic policeman promptly stopped him and read him the riot act for using the mobile phone while driving.
We, too, have rules and public advertisements prohibiting talking on the cellphone while driving. But they remain in the rulebook like money in a miser’s moneybox. Since mobile maniacs in India contribute handsomely to the coffers of cell networks by replying to cricket quizzes during a match, perhaps they could answer this question with “yes” or a “no”: Will India be the last nation in the world to implement a total ban on mobile talk while driving?

The writer, a renowned astrophysicist, is professor emeritus at Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, Pune University Campus

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