City Landmark – PCO aka Phone Booth, Meena Bazar
Relic from the living past.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
It’s like coming face-to-face with the indecipherable relics of a lost civilisation.
The pale pink wall, here in Old Delhi’s Meena Bazar, is defaced with two acronyms: STD and PCO. A quick Google search confirms that STD stands for ‘Subscriber Trunk Dialing’ and PCO are the initials of ‘Public Call Office’.
Those among us who aren’t millennials, and who have lived in the BM era—Before Mobile—might recall that STD and PCO used to be a way of life in every little lane of the city. The former was the dialing code of a city or town that had to precede the number of the person you were to call, and PCOs were little cabins where folks who didn’t have a phone at home would come to make a call. (Nowadays, romantic lovers have mobile phones to carry on clandestine affairs away from the prying eyes of the family. Earlier, they would have to go to a PCO, preferably not the one in the neighbourhood.)
But the sight on this wall arouses more than just a little nostalgia. It is profoundly poignant. Usually, a PCO would have a proper board hanging on the wall, displaying the same acronyms. But here the letters seem to be crudely hammered into the concrete, like a bored student’s name etched with a compass on a wooden desk.
Now a young man passes by. Nadeem lives and works in Meena Bazar, an extremely cramped market filled with little shops selling everything from pumps and juice mixers to bridal suits and chicken biryani. An eatery cook, the lungi-wearing Nadeem has noticed this sign but never thought much of it. “I didn’t know it was related to phones… I have my personal phone to call my family in Benares, and everybody else around me have their own mobiles too.”
It is still early morning and most shops are still shuttered. The alleys are almost empty and the people going about seem to be of a generation not related to the PCO. One can only imagine that here was a very modest telephone booth, and since the area is home to a large number of labourers, the telephone must have been forever busy with men calling up their families and friends back home in the village.
Whatever, you ought to come here to gaze upon this sign. In the age of mobile, it has the gravitas of a museum installation.
And if you walk further along the market lanes, you will spot lots of names and numbers jotted on the walls. These are the mobile numbers of people living here as well as of stall owners, informs Nadeem. This wall has evolved with the phone.