I was about seven or eight when I first noticed. The phone would ring—and don’t picture an iPhone or some sleek cordless number; it was a urine-yellow rotary with a long, coiled cord, mounted over our kitchen counter. It would ring and I would pick it up. “Hello?” I would say. “Hallo,” the caller would say in an Indian accent. Then… nothing. Just the tick of the oven clock, the sound of crickets through the screen door. “Hello?” I would say again, with a bit of an edge. “Hullo,” they would say pleasantly. Then more silence. Eager to get back to The Love Boat or Fantasy Island or whatever I was watching, I’d finally sigh and say, “Do you want to talk to my mom or dad?” Again a pause, then, “Um, yes, that would be fine.” As if I’d called them to coerce them into some sort of powwow with my parents.
Of course not all the uncles and aunties who called our house fit this pattern. But enough did that it became a running joke between my brother and me. As Indian boys in small-town Ohio, there were already so many things we had to contend with—our brown skin, our parents’ accent, the saris Mom sported in Kroger—that it didn’t seem fair to add phone etiquette to the list. If more of the calls had been coming from India, the strange silence would have made more sense, as we could have factored in the thousands of miles and the ocean and all that. Back then, overseas calls were called “trunk” calls. Again that would have helped explain it, as anyone locked in any kind of trunk could be forgiven for sounding disoriented. But many Indians we knew called a trunk a “dickie.” Mashing up that concept with a famous line from a late 1970s horror film would have yielded, “We’ve traced the call and it’s coming from your dickie!” That takes butt-dialing to a whole new level.
As we got older, my brother and I dealt with the telephonic offenders in very different ways. Always more assertive, he called it “verbal chicken,” engaging unsuspecting callers in a contest to see who would veer from the string of hellos into normal conversation first. Some of those battles seemed to last minutes, my brother and I herniating ourselves with suppressed laughter. I was more passive-aggressive; I usually just handed the phone to one of my parents after the first round of hellos. But I imagined more direct approaches. Like the preemptive “Lionel Ritchie”: Picking up the phone and singing, “Hello, is it me you’re looking for?” Or the Indian Lionel Ritchie: “Hello, I am the individual you are seeking only, yes?” Or I might have taken a more educational approach: Ring-ring. “Hello?” “Hallo…” “Listen, the way this works is that when you call someone you’re entering into an unspoken contract to volunteer why you called in the first place.” But they probably would’ve focused on just one word of that mini-diatribe: “unspoken.”
In retrospect, a subconscious way we worked through that phone trauma was by moving from oppressed to oppressor, from prey to predator. I’m talking, of course, about prank calls. Indian-on-Indian prank calls. When visiting friends in larger cities we found our prey easily enough—usually by paging through the phone book for “Patel” or “Singh” or any last name that started with “B-h.” Sometimes we did the verbal chicken thing, which got old fast. Sometimes we invited them to come to non-existent new restaurants like “The House of Eternal Idli, just off I-75.” Many victims were surprisingly good sports. “Yes, sure, I like idli,” they would say—even though we knew they’d never show up. Or maybe they did, waiting patiently at some construction site, just off I-75. Others weren’t so amused. “Who the hell you are?!” I remember one uncle shouting on a post-midnight call. “Who the hell you are?!” “Don’t worry,” I should have told him. “We’re just a bunch of dickies.”
One night, after a graduation party near Chicago, several of us drove around and ended up at Dunkin’ Donuts. Of course, the sole employee was a middle-aged Indian guy. We were polite enough in the store, but of course raced home to look up the number (no cell phones back then). I was handed the phone, no script: Ring-ring. “Hullo?” he said, already sounding hesitant. “Hello, yes,” I said. “At what time did you make the donuts?” A long pause. Then he said, “I made them recently only.” “Yes, but at what time did you make the donuts?” Again a pause, then resolutely: “I have made them just now.” “Yes, but at what time did you make them?” Now he was clearly suspicious. “Why do you ask?” he said. “Because”—I panicked, searching for words, the tables turned on me. “Because…” I heard myself say, “I like my donuts very fresh!” I hung up.
The exchange gave me a standard opening line for most prank calls after that—yes, sadly, I continued such activities well into adulthood. “At what time did you make the donuts?” I asked ex-girlfriends of my grad school classmates, slurring into the phone after a late night at a Westwood bar. “At what time did you make the donuts?” I asked the guy who answered the phone at Domino’s Pizza, my friends giggling beside me. “At what time did you make the donuts?” I asked the women who lived in the apartment below my friend Karen’s, another post-bar night in LA. “Are you calling from upstairs?” the one who answered asked. “Um, no—” I started, but she cut me off: “Because we can hear you through the vent!”
I got older, got married, became a father. The time and space and motivation for prank calls dissipated and, with the rise of email and texting, even the use of phones at all. When I think back, I rationalize that all that joking and all those prank calls were partly a way of taking control of the unknown, the ambiguity of that space between “hello” and whatever comes next.
“Hello,” the woman from Western Union said when I answered my clock-radio-phone in eighth grade, pausing before telling me my grandfather had died in India.
“Hello,” my girlfriend of two years said in college, calling from Italy her semester abroad. She paused then said, “We have to talk.”
“Hello,” the University of Chicago oncology resident said in 2001, clearing his throat before saying, “I have the results of your CT scan and blood test and…” I actually coached that resident and others on how I wanted to hear updates on my cancer. “Please lead with ‘Everything looks great,’” I said. “Unless that’s not true.”
I know there will be many more hellos and pauses in my lifetime, whether by phone, FaceTime, telepathy… In the not-so-distant future, there will be the inevitable calls I dread from my parents: “Hello, Sachin… it’s Aai. Your father is… he’s in the hospital.” There will be the calls I cherish from my kids: “Hello, Dad… great news: I got that job I wanted.” And maybe the not-so-cherished calls from them: “Hello, Dad… great news! I’m moving back in, with my girlfriend… and our newborn triplets.”
I’ve made peace with that hello-and-pause combination now, even come to value it. In our over-connected, always-on world, where we tap instead of talking, click instead of conversing, get instant news anytime, anywhere, it’s actually nice not to know what’s coming next. That post-hello pause could signal something triumphant or tragic, beautiful or banal, karmic or comic. But whatever it heralds, that ellipsis means we will have that much more time before we hear hellos dark rival, the compound word with zero ambiguity: goodbye.