Hold on, please

At 11 a.m., Rakesh Pandya walks in for a quick cup of tea and logs into his constantly buzzing world of seven landlines and two intercoms. Pandya's fingers begin dancing on the phone keypad as he fields calls from party workers who enquire about various rallies, citizens who want phone numbers of their MLAs, and people who want to talk to the party spokespersons.

With Assembly elections just days away, the BJP headquarters, nestled in the colourful chaos of Khanpur in Central Ahmedabad, is a pulsating sea of visitors, BJP workers and mediapersons. Amid all this, Pandya sits calmly in a small corner, surrounded by taped sheets of phone numbers and names, and mouths 'haanjis' into the phone. The North Indian greeting is perhaps an influence of too many visitors from Delhi. "From my first day here back in '98, I have been manning the telephones. Despite all the smartphones, Internet and iPads, a landline telephone is crucial at the headquarters of any political party," he says.

At the office or karyalaya, Pandya's phenomenal memory for numbers is the stuff of stories. He remembers more than 5,000 numbers. "Once I read a number, it gets imprinted in my mind and I am confident that I won't forget it for the next 10 years," he says.

Pandya, one of the three phone operators at the karyalaya who work in shifts, came to Ahmedabad in 1995 from a village in Sabarkantha. "Being a telephone operator is a 365-day job. We take 700 to 800 calls a day. Thankfully, between the three of us, we do manage breaks and holidays," he says. He eats his lunch when he is relieved by another operator around 2 p.m.

The day has been far from ordinary for the telephone operator who has seen three successful election campaigns. Morning saw Chief Minister Narendra Modi hold his first press conference at the karyalaya since 2010 to welcome a top Congress leader, Narhari Amin, into the party. The office is abuzz with a steady stream of visitors, but Pandya is unruffled. "We are used to seeing a lot of ho-halla (commotion) and protest rallies, especially by the Congress, but I have never been bothered by them. The BJP will win with a thumping majority even this time. Wins are celebrated like weddings here. That is truly a memorable part of my job even though the phones do not stop ringing."

Though Pandya has settled into a rhythm, the pace of calls slackens around 4 p.m. He recalls his brief brush with fame: "Recently, BJP leader and actor Smriti Irani (BJP Mahila Morcha President) had called for some numbers. I have even spoken to Narendra Modi when he was just a karyakarta. I am sure he won't remember but I do." Pandya also remembers the grim period after the earthquake. "I still remember taking a lot of distress calls from across the state even months after the earthquake."

Around 4.30 p.m., a caller from Vadodara tests his patience with a third consecutive call. "It is weird. Sometimes, a person calls up eight times for the same piece of information. It's difficult to handle seven phone lines but I tackle tough calls with namrata (humility) or pass the line to my boss," Pandya says.

Over a quick tea break, Pandya checks some websites—he trades in stocks too. He is clearly fascinated by numbers. "Now is a time to cut your losses and sit tight for the market to bounce back," he says. Having studied only till class 10, he is now doing his bachelors in arts.

"I like Gujarati and Math but have trouble with English. Though I have picked up some functional sentences in English, I cannot speak it fluently. My wife is a PhD and is a professor at a local B.Ed college. So I do sometimes feel the need to upgrade myself, which is why I plan to finish my studies."

Since many national leaders are visiting Gujarat to campaign, the phones at the karyalaya have not stopped ringing for days. As the night wears on, the number of calls pick up. Pandya has to make additional phone calls to connect to the office secretary about an ensuing rally and has to arrange for refreshments after a press meet. "My schedule is usually fixed but since this is an important time for the party, I stay here late till 10 p.m."

Signing off after a hectic day around 10 p.m., Pandya looks forward to more calls at home—from his mother. "Many people assume that I go quiet once I get home but I love to talk. My mother worries about the party more than me. Her calls from Sabarkantha are full of queries about the future of the party. I always tell her, we will win, no matter what," he says.

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