Right in the middle of a lecture, she felt the cell phone vibrate. It was her cousin. In a muffled voice, she answered, "I'm on the last bench, attending class. You talk, I'll listen."
Cell phones are becoming commonplace in college classrooms. The hush-hush chitchat between backbenchers is gradually being replaced by whispered phone conversations and SMS chats. Hip and convenient, they are used for everything from playing games to planning a sudden outing.
College authorities are concerned because mobiles are a source of distraction and peer pressure.
Colleges have responded to this trend in different ways. Two Mumbai colleges, Patkar and Modern, have banned mobile phones on the campus.
St Xavier's College, Mumbai, has a notice at the entrance: Please switch off your mobile on entering the college premises. Students can use their cell phone in the canteen or the common room. But if professors find them using cell phones during lectures, they can confiscate the phone and impose a fine.
NM College, Mumbai, does not have any explicit rules. Principal M K Desai, says, "We impress upon our students that using a cell can disturb both teacher and pupil. Our approach is persuasive and reformative."
Most academicians agree that cell phones disrupt the teaching process.
Professors find it difficult to command attention and encourage participation if students receive calls during class. Says Prof Dr Thomas Samuel of Delhi's Kirori Mal College, "It upsets the rhythm of the class."
Some students agree. Jessica Mascarenhas, who studies computer engineering at Mumbai's St Francis Institute of Technology, says, "Cells can be very distracting during a lecture. I don't see why students need to carry cells."
Pastime or necessity?
Students, who carry a cell to college, claim that it is almost a necessity. Charmaine Caldeira, a student of NM College, says, "If there is an emergency and I am in college, it is easy to contact me."
This holds good for colleges that do not have a good telephone network. Prof Manisha Sen, head of the Department of Applied Psychology at the Mumbai University, says, "Unfortunately the phones on campus are out of order quite often. If there were an emergency, it would be difficult for parents to contact their children. In such a situation, a mobile is very useful, almost necessary."
Anxious parents provide children with cells, so they can keep tabs on them. They can monitor their activities and remind them not to stay out too late. Shaila Pereira, who works in a Mumbai bank, says, "I can call my son anytime and ask where he is. I've found, that now he comes home early, because if he is later than usual, he knows I will call."
Students, expectedly, aren't happy about this 'constant nagging'. Priya Hegde (name changed), a management student from Pune, says, "My parents live in Mumbai, yet it feels like I am at home listening to one of Dad's lectures. They keep calling to ask where I am, what I'm doing. Not that I always tell the truth. But it's pretty stifling."
Says M K Desai, "Some parents are panicky. If their children are away at college for 5-6 hours, they are worried. They buy them cells, so they can call and keep in touch."
Besides calls and SMS, cell phones help relieve boredom. Says Charmaine, "If I am bored in college, I play a few games."
Students also use their mobiles innovatively to make sudden plans. Hazel D'souza, who is pursuing her masters in psychology, explains, "I have friends in other departments. We don't know when we might be free. So we give each other missed calls. We have codes, like one ring means 'I'll meet you', two rings mean 'I can't make it'." The idea is to avoid the expenses of a call or an SMS.
Keeping up with the Joneses
But it is not just a communication tool. It is also a fashion accessory. Possessing the hottest models with state-of-the-art features, funky ring tones, and sleek covers is considered "cool".
Some professors fear this craze could breed snobbishness. Says Fr Simon, "Some of the students carry these mobiles just to show off that they have the latest gadgets, that they are above the rest."
Principal M K Desai adds, "It is like a status symbol with some students." Prof Sen disagrees, "Anything becomes a status symbol because of the way others perceive it, not because of the user's intentions."
Many feel that a mobile phone is not a luxury anymore. Gauri Kulkarni, who is studying psychology at the Mumbai University, says, "Cells used to be a status symbol, when only a few could afford them, but now almost everyone can." Charmaine adds, "Even the vendors on the road have mobiles."
Here's where the model of the phone matters. Many flaunt the latest and costliest gizmos. Says Kunal Gangar, who studies at Mithibhai College, "The model of your phone reveals how deep your Dad's pocket is."
As a result, students who don't carry a phone or own an outdated piece feel left out. Kartik Shetty, an engineering student from Mangalore, was the last one among his friends to buy a cell. He says, "I would feel very left out, especially when my friends kept messaging each other. I felt like I was lagging behind in some way. After coaxing my parents for a long time, they finally got me one." Now, Kartik's cell phone rings all the time.
"These students get more calls a day than I do," says M K Desai.