The Telephone Booth
The Telephone Booth
Nayani stared at it, dumbfounded. The abandoned telephone booth was surrounded by creepers everywhere. A patch of daffodils decorated its base. Nayani walked towards the booth and opened its door. Instead of dropping a coin in the slit and dialling a number, she hugged the payphone tightly and kissed on top of the receiver.
Ten seconds later, she found two strong hands embracing her. The payphone was hugging her back! That couldn’t be possible. She could feel human skin. Immediately she looked up and found herself staring into the eyes of the boy who never loved her truly. He flashed a creepy smile. Then the ground beneath them opened up and they fell headlong.
August 20th, 2019
Nayani screamed and woke up, panting for breath. She grabbed the Tupperware bottle from the bedside table and swallowed huge gulps of water. She then rubbed her eyes and looked around. She was still in her bedroom. She had dreamt about the abandoned telephone booth for the first time. But it all looked so real. The surroundings. The telephone booth. The payphone. The boy she loved during her teens. His hands around her torso. She felt a pang of unexplained pain in her heart. Suddenly she looked at the clock, which flashed a sharp eight.
She jumped from her bed and headed straight to the kitchen, as she was late for work. She boiled the milk, made some tomato cheese sandwiches, and then went to the bathroom for her ablutions. She dressed herself in a comfortable sandal-yellow kurti, while tying her wavy hair into a ponytail, patting her dusky skin with some compact, decorating her black eyes with kaajal, and dabbing on some magenta lipstick. She sat at the breakfast table and munched on the sandwiches, all the while wondering about the telephone booth.
She picked up her phone and typed out a message to her mom on WhatsApp.
“I am coming to Chennai this weekend. Good morning and love you.”
Morning of August 24th, 2019
Mridula’s cardamom tea was synonymous with nostalgia. Nayani sniffed her cup and brought it to her lips. She sipped it, relishing in the sugary flavour. Then she looked at Mridula and winked at her.
“This is the best tea in the world, Ma. I love you.”
Mridula chuckled, her laughter creating ripples in the August breeze.
“Aha! Your laughter is the best music, Ma.” Nayani continued her banter.
“Okay, okay, stop flattering me. Why have you come here? Nowadays, you are so busy. You always tell me that you cannot come to Chennai for another couple of years. What happened to you suddenly?”
“Okay, let me come straight to the point. I have some unfinished business, Ma. So I thought I could come over and finish it once and for all.”
“Ah, that’s why! Otherwise you wouldn’t come. What’s the business, by the way?”
“Ummm…it’s a secret. I’ll let you know later.”
“Hmph! You and your secrets.”
Mridula picked up the empty tea cups and retreated to the kitchen. Nayani smiled to herself, thankful that one of her parents was still alive.
Evening of August 24th, 2019
The abandoned telephone booth looked like just how it had appeared in Nayani’s dream. The glass-paned red telephone booth was popular a decade ago. Nayani had frequented it so much that she knew that the payphone held more secrets than coins. Now, the telephone booth was surrounded by creepers and adorned with cobwebs. The name-board at the top displayed just ‘PHONE’, while the ‘TELE’ part had evidently rusted with time.
Just like in her dream, the outside of the telephone booth was decorated by a patch of fresh daffodils. It was like the flowers were protecting the booth from natural disasters. Nayani opened the glass door and entered it. More cobwebs welcomed her and she coughed, as she inhaled a mouthful of dust. The payphone had gathered years of dust, which shined in the sun rays that fell on it through the glass panes. Knowing that she’d be met with such a sight, Nayani had brought a waste-cloth along with her. Taking it from her handbag, she wiped the payphone thoroughly. The yellow box with its keypad became visible and the black receiver glowed like a magical object.
As she had done in her dream, she hugged the payphone tightly, hoping that it wouldn’t metamorphose into the person she didn’t want to see. She placed her right ear on top of the yellow box and listened to it breath with stories from a bygone decade. At that moment, she reminisced about her bittersweet relationship with the telephone booth. It was twelve years earlier, when the booth meant everything to her.
April 18th, 2007
There were three school students standing near the telephone booth, when Nayani reached there. They were seniors from her school and they flashed a casual smile at her. She smiled in return and parked her bicycle. The students took turns to make calls. After ten minutes, the booth emptied off and Nayani entered it. She lifted the receiver and dropped a one-rupee coin in the slit. She typed the mobile number that she knew by heart. Three dial tones later, she heard the familiar ring. Mayank picked up on the fifth ring.
“Hello, Mayank. Nayani here.”
“Ah, Nayani! I wasn’t expecting your call.”
“I am calling from the telephone booth. Can we meet today?”
“Sure, love. Where?”
“I’ll be finishing my music class at 6. So, you just meet me on the 4th cross street.”
“Okay, sure, dear.”
“Hmmm, love you too.”
But Mayank never turned up that day. It was just two weeks of their clandestine puppy-love relationship. Within then, Mayank started behaving indifferently. Sometimes, he never picked up Nayani’s calls. Sometimes, he had excuses ready at the tip of his tongue. Sometimes, Nayani need not drop another coin into the phone box, because their conversations lasted only two minutes. And, sometimes, Mayank never responded to the cute MMSes which Nayani sent to him from her uncle’s Nokia 1100. Nevertheless, she built a castle of hope in her heart, waiting every day for Mayank to call her and talk to her. Occasionally, she looked at her journal, where she had scribbled ‘Mayanayani’ a thousand times. She was just 14 and she couldn’t find the difference between infatuation and love.
May 20th, 2007
Mayank’s mobile phone was not reachable for ten days in a row. Nayani panicked and decided to visit his apartment. She went along with a friend and confronted him. But all she gathered was vague replies to her questions. When asked about the mobile phone, his reply was casual. He had just thrown the mobile phone in anger and it had shattered to pieces.
By the end of the conversation, Nayani knew she had somehow lost Mayank.
June 18th, 2007
Though Nayani did not disturb Mayank again, she just tried calling him, to check whether his mobile phone was working. She went to the telephone booth and dialled his number. She almost cried when she heard the rings. But she cut the call before he could pick up.
If Mayank was really in love with her, he would have called her once he got his mobile phone repaired. But that was not the case here.
July 15th, 2007
Nayani could not bear it anymore. She needed many answers. So, she mustered up the courage and called Mayank from her uncle’s Nokia cellphone. He knew that number, but he picked up.
“Do you love me, Mayank?” She asked him after the initial pleasantries.
“No, not at all, to be frank.” That was his cold reply.
After a series of muffled cries, Nayani asked, “I need to know the reason. Why?”
“Just like that. I am not interested in you. You aren’t my type of girl.”
That was the sentence which gave Nayani her first heartbreak. A lump formed in her throat as she slowly realized that she was going through a breakup. What followed was a bout of pleas from Nayani, to which Mayank’s replies were curt.
Even after three months, Nayani was contemplating suicide, thinking that she was unworthy of love. But she just couldn’t harm herself, because a part of her still wanted to live and experience the beautiful gift called ‘life’.
A cool breeze wafted from the broken window pane. Nayani broke free from her embrace and from her reverie, patted the payphone lovingly, and looked outside. She saw the skies darkening for a downpour. Before she could collect herself, the rains commenced. For a moment, Nayani wondered whether she would be caught in the eerie telephone booth the entire night. If she hadn’t known the booth from her young age, she wouldn’t have entered it. It looked haunted, what with all the creepers and cobwebs.
A sudden thunderbolt cut through the air and a streak of lightning fell on the payphone. Nayani shuddered. She knew she had to call Mridula and inform her about her whereabouts, lest she would be worried. To her dismay, there was no signal on her mobile phone. Slapping her forehead, she opened the booth’s door to check if there was any passerby. But there was not even a reptile in sight. An unexplainable silence hung in the air, punctuated by the pitter-patter of raindrops.
Though the thought was silly, Nayani wondered whether she could use the payphone and call her mother. In a sudden burst of curiosity, she picked up the receiver. To her utter shock, a green light emanated from the display pane. She fumbled for a one-rupee coin in her purse. After finding it, she dropped it into the coin slit and dialled the number.
It was a second too late that she realized she had dialled Mayank’s old mobile number. She wished that it should not be in use or it should be used by someone else. However, deep inside her heart, she wished to listen to his voice. Maybe, speak a few words with him. After all, she had put everything in the backburner and was leading a happy life with her boyfriend, Vishnu.
“Hello!” Someone picked up.
“Hello, is that Mayank?”
“Yes, I am Mayank. Who is this?”
“Mayank, I am Nayani.”
There was silence at the other end.
“What do you want now, Nayani? I think I made everything clear to you.”
For a moment, Nayani was dumbstruck at his attitude. Even after twelve years, he was thinking that she still loved him and that she wanted to torture him. She didn’t know how to react to his response. So, she said, “I am sorry. I never imagined that you’d still be mulling over the past.”
“The past? We broke up just last month. Today is August 22nd. And it’s already ‘past’ for you, eh? Can you see it now? You would now understand why you aren’t my type of girl. You are selfish. You have already moved on, though it was I who initiated our breakup. I just can’t fathom why you have called me now-”
Nayani couldn’t listen anymore, as the receiver dropped from her hand and she stood still, staring at the rain through the broken window pane.
An hour had passed since the eerie incident, but Nayani could not step out of the telephone booth. She sat on the booth’s floor, her head buried in her palms. Even after much thinking, she could find no plausible reason for the incident. How could she speak to Mayank of the past? Mayank of 2007?
After much pontification, she stood up and decided to experiment again. She picked up the receiver, dropped a coin, and dialled her mother’s number. But there was no dial tone after that. Furthermore, the payphone returned her coin. She tried this a few more times. Then, she dialled one of her friends’ number and met with the same phenomenon.
An idea suddenly struck her. She dialled the landline number which her family had used in 2007. To her horror, she heard the dial tone. Tin tin tin tin…
Her heart thudded mercilessly against her ribcage, as she heard the rings. The call was picked up.
“Hello!” It was Nayani’s father, who had passed away in 2013. She was overcome with emotions, as she heard his voice, six years after his death.
“Nayani? Where are you?”
“I am at Shilpa’s house,” she replied, as she suddenly remembered that she was always at Shilpa’s house in the evenings of August 2007.
“Okay, but this is not Shilpa’s landline number. Where are you calling from?”
“Shilpa’s landline has malfunctioned, Pa. So, I came to the telephone booth to call you.”
“Oh! That’s okay. But why did you call me?”
“Just to tell you that I’d be late today. I’ll reach home by 9 PM.”
“Okay, dear. Take care. Be safe while cycling back.”
“Okay, Pa. I love you.”
“Huh? What is this? You are speaking so strangely.”
“Pa, I just said I love you. Nothing strange in it.”
“Ah, I love you too, Nayani. Don’t know what has come over my dear daughter. Come home soon.”
With that, he hung up. And suddenly, Nayani remembered that day. After she had reached home earlier than 9 PM, her dad had questioned her about the strange call. She had been surprised. Then, she had told him that it must have been a prank call made by her enemy, Shruthi. Her dad had been convinced successfully.
Tears streamed down Nayani’s eyes, as she realized the telephone booth’s superpower. It was a different time-portal which allowed people to make calls to their past, to the exact date and time as the present. She also figured out that the payphone connected her to 2007, and not to other years, because that year was the last time she had used the telephone booth.
Nayani was down with a bad flu, as a result of getting drenched in the rain. Mridula heeded to her needs and took care of her. She was also worried about her daughter’s sudden silence. She wasn’t talking properly. But one thing was clear, whatever unfinished business she had had was not still finished.
“Nayani, I’ve made pancakes for you,” she said, placing a plate of blueberry pancakes with dollops of chocolate sauce and honey oozing at their sides.
“Ah! That’s the best ever remedy for what I am going through,” replied Nayani, her mouth watering at the sight of the delicious pancakes.
“You can share with me whatever that’s troubling you. You must know that I’m always here for you.” Mridula placed her right palm atop Nayani’s entwined hands.
“Nothing, Ma. I’ll get over it. Vishnu is coming today. He’ll visit us in the evening.”
“Oh, then you must be happy!”
“Of course, I should be. And, I will.”
“Any idea of getting married this year?”
“Not yet, Ma. Let us enjoy our freedom for a few more years. With marriage comes greater responsibilities, which we aren’t ready to take up now.”
“That’s true. Okay, you have your pancakes and rest for some time.”
“No, Ma. After having my breakfast, I’ll just take a walk around the neighbourhood. Maybe I’ll feel better.”
Mridula left the room. Nayani’s eyes wandered over to the landline phone placed at the corner of the room. She wondered whether all the telephones connected to the past or whether only that particular payphone did that. And, she also wanted to know the mechanism behind it, the science behind her strange experience. However, she felt that some things are better left unexplained. Maybe, this was another mystery of the universe.
Nayani’s hands shivered as she dropped a coin into the payphone’s slit and dialled Mayank’s old number. She decided that if the payphone connected to her past, then she would give the past Mayank a piece of her mind and ask him to eff off. It was because of him that her mental health weakened and she was almost driven to kill herself.
As years passed and maturity came over her, she realized that she had been a fool to believe something as love, when it was just a huge standup comedy show. Too many times, she regretted her past self’s low self-esteem and her inability to move on. Now was the time to give it back to the boy who never deserved her.
Mayank picked up the phone on the seventh ring.
“Hello, Mayank. I am Nayani.”
“Now, what do you want? You just spoke yesterday. And, you mysteriously cut the call. Why have you called now?”
“Just to tell you to eff off.”
“Means? What’s meant by ‘eff off’?”
“Oh! You don’t know modern jargon, right? I meant to tell you that you’re a heartless creature. You are a loser, Mayank.”
“Nayani! What are you talking about?”
“Listen! Don’t you dare raise your voice against mine. You don’t deserve me. You just don’t deserve me. Okay? It’s not the other way around.”
“Nayani, can you just-”
“YOU ARE A LOSER! And losers don’t deserve girls like me. Thank God, I didn’t end up with you. You are a shitbag. And you’re going to lose everything in your life. Mark my words. These are not just words coming out of a hopeless romantic teenager’s mouth. Never ever speak to me. And, don’t ever question me about this incident. I’ll go to the extent of pressing charges against you. Understood?”
There was only silence at the other end. Nayani dropped another one-rupee coin as the silence extended. After a minute, Mayank heaved a huge sigh and replied, “Nayani, you are mad.”
“Yes, I am. And, goodbye.”
She hung up and burst into tears. She felt so light that she could grow wings and fly in the sky.
After a few minutes, she wiped her cheeks and proceeded to conduct another experiment which was on her mind. She walked to the next street, which housed her high-school classmate Monika’s bungalow. Monika was the daughter of a wealthy businessman. She was also famous in school, though she never boasted about it. She was humble and mingled with all classmates, unlike other rich students who had separate cliques.
Nayani reached Monika's bungalow, requested the security guard to inform her about her arrival, and waited to be called in. A minute later, Monika herself came down and invited her in. After the initial pleasantries, Monika began in her sultry voice, “I was intrigued by your message. So, you want me to take part in an experiment?”
“Yes, Monika. But you shouldn’t ask any questions about it. Just a small experiment.”
“Okay, I am game for it. Where are we going to conduct it?”
“In the telephone booth in the next street.”
“What? In that telephone booth? But it’s been abandoned for so many years. Why on earth are you conducting your experiment in that place?”
“Because, my experiment involves the payphone inside that telephone booth. And, Monika, please, no more questions. I cannot explain certain things.”
“Okay, okay, cool. Can we go now? We can return here, have some smoothies, and catch up. It’s been a long time.”
“Not today, Monika. I am having a bad cold. Sometime later.”
“Fine then, let’s go.”
The duo reached the telephone booth. Monika’s eyebrows drew together in trepidation, as she looked around the abandoned booth. Nayani asked her, “Do you know any old mobile number or landline number that’s not in use now? I mean, do you know it by heart?”
“Yes, I know. My childhood friend’s.”
“Was the mobile number used before 2010? That was the last year this booth was in use.”
“Yeah, it was.”
“Okay, let me do something.”
Nayani lifted the receiver, dropped the coin, and asked Monika to type that number. Though Monika panicked at the sight of the green light on the display pane, she proceeded to type the number. But Nayani couldn’t listen to any dial tone. A moment later, the payphone returned the coin. She was intrigued.
“Wait, have you ever used a payphone?”
“No, I haven't. Not this payphone, not any payphone. I owned a mobile phone during our school days. Don't you remember?”
This was another discovery for the already flabbergasted Nayani. The telephone booth worked its magic only on those who had used it.
Vishnu curled his pinky finger with Nayani’s. They decided that a leisurely evening walk would be a great stressbuster. Also, Nayani wanted to try another experiment with Vishnu. She was intrigued to know whether it worked on everyone. Even to those who haven’t used that particular telephone booth. She also wondered whether all the payphones in the world turn into time portals, after they are abandoned.
“Hey, Vish. Have you ever used a telephone booth to speak to someone?” She asked Vishnu.
“Yes, I have. Lots of time, actually.”
“When was the last time you used a payphone?”
“I think it was in 2010.”
“Is that booth like the red ones you see everywhere?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Okay, let’s take this path. I want to show you something.”
“What? This narrow street?” Vishnu’s honey-coloured eyes searched the path for any signs of human inhabitation. But he couldn’t find even one human being in sight.
“Yes, love. This path-”
“But it looks haunted. There are only trees and more trees. Why would you want to go this way?”
“I want to show you something, Vish. Believe me, you’ll be thrilled.”
“What? Are you planning to put me in a horror movie?” Vishnu chuckled and hit her playfully.
“Nope. You wait and watch. Come.” She looked into his eyes again and melted in those honey-coloured eyeballs. The corner of his mouth twitched, making his perfect jawline a spectacle to watch. She placed her left palm on his porcelain cheeks and pulled him closer. They kissed, his hands roving all over her back and their tongues exploring each other’s mouths. Then they realized that they were in public, though the street they just crossed was deserted. They pulled back and stood awkwardly, not knowing what to tell.
“Come, let’s go.” Nayani held his hand and led him on the path.
They walked on the narrow street, strewn with beech and mango trees. A cool breeze engulfed them, though the skies were still clear. A few steps away, the red telephone booth stood as majestic as ever.
“Vish, this street came into existence only because of this telephone booth. The school in which I studied is situated on the other street, which we crossed a few minutes ago. This booth was popular a decade ago, as it was the only means of communication used by the students of this locality. I have some fond and bitter memories associated with this booth. Yesterday, something strange happened, which I cannot explain clearly. I came to this booth to just take a look at it. But it started raining heavily and I got caught. I wanted to inform Ma about my whereabouts. But there was no signal in my phone. So, I just had this weird idea of using this telephone.”
“Instead of calling my mother’s number, I dialled my high school sweetheart Mayank’s old number, as I am used to dialling it frequently in this booth. Guess what? That number is not in existence now. But the call got connected. For a moment, I thought that he might be using the same number. He picked up the call. I started speaking to him, but he wasn’t in the present. I mean, I was speaking to his past version in 2007. I was flabbergasted. Then, I tried the old landline number which we used in 2007. Believe me, I talked to my father. Later, I went home and tried Mayank’s old number from my phone. It said that it wasn’t in existence. I know, this really sounds strange. But I want you to try calling to some old number once and check whether the same happens to you. Make sure that that old number has been dialled in a telephone booth in 2010.”
After a moment of stunned silence, Vishnu burst out laughing.
“Hahaha! Hey, Nayan, what happened to you? Are you writing a science-fiction novel?”
“No, Vish. I am serious. I am still reeling from the experience. Please try it. Call Vidhya’s past self. I think she died on August 26th, 2010. That is tomorrow. So, you call now. Tell her you love her. Or rather loved her. Confess it now at least. You cannot prevent her accident, but a great weight would be lifted from your shoulders. You might have surely called her from a telephone booth in 2010.”
The mention of Vidhya brought Vishnu back to reality. He turned serious and fidgeted with his fingers. The memories associated with Vidhya were too painful, but Nayani had presented a chance for him to talk to her again. Something more than happiness bubbled in his heart and he rubbed his hands together.
“Okay, I am ready.”
They entered the telephone booth and Vishnu lifted the receiver. He was thrilled when the display pane shone green. Nayani dropped a coin in the slit.
After a few rings, the coin fell and the call got connected.
Nayani couldn’t hear what the voice at the other end spoke.
“Vishnu here. What are you doing?”
The sweet voice at the other end was the perfect mixture of happiness and puzzlement.
“I am calling from a telephone booth. Listen, I just felt like talking to you. I am so overwhelmed with emotions right now, that tears are brimming in my eyes.”
A short pause as he heard Vidhya’s confused questions.
“I just want to tell you I love you, Vidhya. I have always loved you, but I never mustered the courage to tell you. I love you, okay? I don’t want to know what you feel about me.”
Nayani slapped his hand and signalled him to ask about her feelings too, while he listened to Vidhya’s exasperations.
“What?! You love me too?”
Nayani swallowed a lump in her throat, as she realized the possibility of Vishnu warning Vidhya about her impending accident. Then, Vidhya would live and Nayani would never meet Vishnu. But that would create a paradox. If Vishnu never meets Nayani, then he wouldn’t go to the telephone booth to warn Vidhya about her accident.
“I don’t know what to say. Vidhya, I love you. You are always in my heart, no matter what.”
Nayani couldn’t listen anymore. She stepped out of the booth. Suddenly she felt that it was a mistake to have initiated this experiment with Vishnu. She hugged herself, as goosebumps appeared on her body. She also discovered that the telephone booth could connect anyone, who had used a payphone, to the past. That too, to the exact date and time of the last year they had used it.
When Vishnu came out, his face was soaked in tears. He ran towards Nayani and hugged her tightly.
“Thank you so much, Nayani. As you told, I am feeling so relieved now. I know I cannot prevent her death. I cannot meddle with time. But I am happy I confessed my love to her and I also got to know that she loved me too. Thank you so much!”
Nayani hugged him back and cried on his shoulders. Through her tears, she asked him, “Is she still in your heart? Don’t you love me truly?”
He pulled back from the embrace and looked at her, his eyes hard with love.
“What madness is this, Nayani? Will a mother not love one of her two children? Or, will she abandon the second child because the first one died? This is like that. Vidhya is my past. You are my present. And, I love both my past and present equally. For hell’s sake, she is no more. Dead loved ones stay with us forever in our memories, Nayani. You should understand that.”
Nayani slapped her forehead and replied, “I am sorry I asked that question. So silly of me! Come, let’s go home. Ma is preparing some special snacks for you.”
“Wow! That’s so sweet of her. Let’s go!” The happy duo walked back home, sharing some light-hearted banter.
“What is that in your hand?” asked Vishnu, as he walked along with Nayani on the same street. She removed the newspaper wrapper and showed him the thing in her hand.
“Sledgehammer? But, why?”
“That payphone is not going to do either of us any good.”
“What do you mean?”
“Only both of us know its secret. We will not share it with anyone, but we might blurt it out unknowingly. So, what will happen then? The secret will spread. Then, many people will make calls to their past, meddle with time, and change all the events. I don’t want to be the one destroying others' lives. Whatever has happened should happen as it was. Okay?”
“Okay, so you’re going to destroy it?”
“Yes. And also, you and I will be tempted to call to our past loves again. We have achieved what we wanted to do. I gave back to Mayank and you confessed to Vidhya. That’s all. I don’t want us to dwell in our past just because of a damn telephone. We have a beautiful life ahead. Let’s concentrate on our present and future.”
“Well said, madam!”
And so, the abandoned telephone booth lived on, with a payphone shattered to pieces, and two souls feeling good about themselves.