We would need your cell phone number, said the clerk behind the desk at the post office.

I might be among the few still using the Indian postal service—I dislike sending or receiving documents through courier because one, they ring the doorbell for a signature and two, by the time I remove all the staple pins, I am left with just shreds. The postman just slips it in under the door—more efficient and effective.

I said I didn’t have one—you give out your number in one place and the next thing you get is an SMS offering a 10% discount on woollen gloves.

She said it was now mandatory to include the sender’s mobile number—a gent at the back of the office helpfully added that I would get a message when the letter gets delivered.

No, I continued stubbornly, I don’t have one. Then my letter wouldn’t go, said the clerk flatly. Just give any number, she said, because they needed to make an entry to complete the procedure.

As I returned from the post office, looking at an unrelated message from a VK/BZ/DM sender offering me a necklace at half the price, it reminded me how the phone now was our most significant tool of identification.

All our so-called important documents and frequently used services—Aadhaar card, PAN card, bank account, PayTM, flight tickets, various apps—are connected to our mobile number. I could not send a letter without a phone number. Shopping, eating out, travelling etc. have become deeply linked to a number—they tempt you with reward points, discounts, promotions and other benefits.

We are all identified—or imprisoned—by a number. In an unorganized country with a population in perpetual motion, that number is one thing that pins us down.

There are two ways of looking at it—as a blessing or a bane.

It’s changed the life of millions of people, all of ours. People are able to stay in touch with their families wherever they are, save money on entertainment and generally find a companion in a cell phone as an unfortunate substitute for a human.

For many immigrant workers, living in the city like Mumbai can get lonely—the phone provides distractions. The brilliant Indian neighbourhood ecosystem has worked in such a way that there are people who pirate movies and TV shows and distribute among others for a small fee to be watched on their devices. The building guard, who is illiterate, is constantly on Facebook—checking pictures, looking at videos or listening to music. It’s a one-stop tool for everything.

There are over a billion mobile phone subscribers in India and in close competition, over a billion Aadhaar cards have been issued, as of last April. Only one of them is, apparently, mandatory to have and is recognized as proof of identification. Both are linked to each other.

The opposite argument is that it’s obviously an intrusive gadget. It dissolves boundaries of privacy, space and formality. You wouldn’t call someone’s home before and after a certain time; but on a cell phone it’s fair game. There is no way of stopping promotional messages; they flood your inbox. The phone’s as much in your face as it is in your pocket.

When you enter a movie hall, you often find a young person asking for your telephone number. Just the number, they would plead, no other details needed and you could win a three-day trip to Bhagalpur.

When I ordered a book the other day from an e-tailer, I got about 8-10 text messages and emails. “Your order has been found". “It has been dusted and packed". “It has been picked up by someone". “It has been put on a truck". “It has been brought down from the truck". “Sorry, someone dropped it, but fortunately it’s just a book… "

Then the delivery agent called, of course, on the mobile phone. “Sir, where is this address?"

“It’s mentioned in my account details?"

“Yes, but where is it?"

“It’s across the street from the hospital, like mentioned in my account, which was later verified with an OTP."

“Oh, that hospital? I know where it is."

Even as I wondered why he called, there is probably some compulsion in calling a person when you have a cell number, just to make sure the number and person exist. It’s like on flights—you eat not because you are hungry, but because you are being offered food.

I was reminded of the joy of getting a cell number from the recent movie Last Flag Flying, playing at the ongoing Mumbai film festival (MAMI). Set in 2003, when I too got my first hand-held, there is a sequence in the film where its three elderly protagonists get their phones for the first time and can’t believe how it works so magically. Bryan Cranston’s atheist character calls up Laurence Fishburne, a pastor, and says, “This is God calling."

Now, more than a decade later, its novelty endures and irritates. People get offended when you don’t offer a mobile number when asked, like the clerk at the post office. The chap at the laundry the other day insisted on a cell number—a landline just wouldn’t do.

“You don’t need to call me. I will collect the shirt on the day mentioned."

“But sir, if you forget?"

“Then you get lucky and get a free laundered shirt, no?"

As I walked back from the laundry, looking at a message from VK-ASTRLG that said, “Kya aap pareshan hain? Love-life, education, career, business se judi har pareshani ka hal FREE me jaanne ke liye Call kijiye Acharya ji ko", I wondered if Acharyaji would accept calls only from a mobile number.

Letter From... is Mint on Sunday’s antidote to boring editor’s columns. Each week, one of our editors—Sidin Vadukut in London and Arun Janardhan in Mumbai—will send dispatches on places, people and institutions that are worth ruminating about on the weekend.

Comments are welcome at feedback@livemint.com

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