It was sometime in 2000. Everyone was getting a cell phone. I got a Nokia 5110, a clunky device that could inflict skull trauma but whose battery life was legendary. The Nokia 5110 came bundled with Airtel — your phone was tied to a carrier in those days. I got a 98450 number which, as anyone would recognise, is one of those first Bangalore numbers. (I still get a smile from old Bangaloreans who recognise this.)

Airtel followed me from the Nokia 5110 to its next model; and then a couple of nondescript Nokias (even a Flip phone!) It was a time when people still memorised phone numbers. While my friends moved to different cities and changed numbers and service providers (the cute Hutch pug, and later, Vodafone, pug was responsible for many such switchovers), I stuck to both Airtel and to my number. We still didn’t have number portability, so no matter how bad Airtel got, I stayed faithful. Even when Vodafone, BSNL, Idea, and others brought brand new offers with lower rates, attractive prepaid connections, freebies like a plot of land and a rich uncle thrown in, I stuck to Airtel and to my phone number. I’ve been with Airtel through all the ARR tunes.

About two years ago, I got a call from a US number early in the morning. It was a friend, Ritu, whom I hadn’t heard from since 2004 or so. She had moved to the US and we’d lost touch. As soon as I picked up the call, she asked, “Whose number is this?” A little annoyed, because she was the one who’d called me, I gave my name. There was a shriek of delight. “I woke up with this number in my head — and I couldn’t for the life of me remember whose number it was,” Ritu said. We spoke for over an hour. My Airtel old series phone number had etched itself into her memory — like a hardcode! Or like a song.

Airtel sends me email calling me a Platinum customer. Blush. Warm fuzzies. Just like one tends to believe the stuff men whisper into your ears, I fell for it.

It took Covid-19 to jerk me out of this. This is a slight deviation but bear with me. One thing you have to know about me. I follow rules, normally, like wearing seatbelts, never driving even if I’ve had just a drink, not entering one-way streets. I’m the woman who always stands in queue. So when Covid-19 struck, I stayed home. I mask up to even open the door. My only excursions are to the ATM and in the past week, for a short walk in the neighbourhood, fully masked. It’s not that I’m paranoid. I have good reason for being super cautious. Two years ago, after I spent hours struggling to breathe in the Emergency of Fortis Hospital, my pulmonologist told me that I have the lungs of a 70-year-old. I’ve Baba Ramdev’d my way through breathing exercises, but lung capacity does not magically increase. This fact, coupled with me being a single mother to a four-year-old, makes me take Covid-19 seriously. My best chance at beating Covid-19 — whether physically or financially — is to not catch it.

Back to the Airtel story. Two days ago, I lost network on my phone. The consensus of friends was that it’s a SIM issue. I contacted Airtel asking if they would deliver a SIM home to me. Rude, rude, shock. They deliver SIMs home to you for free if you’re switching to Airtel from another carrier. In other words, they turn on the early charm of a Bumble date. But if you’re an Airtel customer — no matter for how long — you have to go to a physical store. I called 121, I pleaded, I offered to pay for the home delivery, but got a standard template answer. I tweeted — and got round after round of template answers from the Airtel armybot. Let me sum up Airtel’s answer: “Sure, Covid-19 might still be there, but the lockdown is over, so no matter what your personal circumstances are, you need to visit a physical air-conditioned store that we tell you is sanitised for something as simple as a duplicate sim.” I’m a little embarrassed about the privilege that allows me to get into a Mexican standoff with Airtel — instead of doing what any person would do: Go to an Airtel store. But I’m also equally determined not to catch Covid.

After having spent a whole day fielding calls, I’ve now decided there’s only one way out. I am getting a new Airtel postpaid connection. Apparently, they home deliver SIMs for these. I will surrender the number I’ve held for 20 years. It feels like a 20-year-old relationship has ended. No more nostalgia from old Bangaloreans who recognise the old Airtel series. No chance certainly of long-lost friends calling up because they woke up with this Airtel number in their heads. It makes sense in a way that things do — or don’t — in a Covid-19 world. When everything is changing, why not this? People move on. The centre doesn’t hold. Maybe in letting go of this sentimental (and convenient) attachment, I’m getting ready for new — and uncertain — times.

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Help non-profits tell powerful stories, change attitudes, behaviour and policy, and raise funds. Writer. Single mum.

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