Monday, February 16, 2009

Man wanted to call India, but got 911, twice

When Deep Vashishta, a jewelry importer who lives in New York City, arrived in the US three years ago, the first thing he wanted to do was call his wife in New Delhi to let her know he was safe.

So he picked up the phone and started to dial — first the country code for India, which is 91, then the start of the city code for New Delhi, which is 11. But before he could finish punching in all the numbers, the voice of a woman speaking in English came onto the line.

“I said, ‘O.K., wrong number,’ and I put down the phone,” Vashishta recalled. Two minutes later, there was a knock at his door. It was the police.

Vashishta had forgotten to dial the international calling code 011 before calling India, and he is hardly the only South Asian immigrant who has done this, as was evident from an informal survey on the streets of Jackson Heights, a heavily Indian neighborhood in Queens.

Nationwide, 240 million calls are placed to 911 every year, and up to 10 percent of them are misdialed, according to Patrick Halley, a spokesman for the National Emergency Number Association.

Although neither Halley nor the New York Police Department could provide statistics on how many misdialings in the city were attempts to call numbers in India, many local Indians, especially newly arrived immigrants, acknowledge that the misdialings are a common problem.

Rajinder Singh tells a typical story. Speaking in a mix of English and his native Punjabi, he recalled that he could not figure out why he was unable to reach his family in India when he came to the United States in 1997, and why the police called him back within five minutes.

“Do you have a problem?” he was asked. “No, no problem,” Singh replied. And he added: “The police here are way better than the police in our country. If this happened there, they would never be this nice.”

As for Vashishta, he laughed in embarrassment as he recalled misdialing 911 not once but twice in a weekend. “It all happened by mistake,” he said. When he tried to call his wife the following day, once more forgetting to dial 011 first, he again found police at his door.

“You did this yesterday, too,” he recalled the officers saying. Suspicious, they searched every room of the house.

But Vashishta thinks that he may now have a fail-safe solution. He pulled out his cellphone, which displays a picture of his new grandson.

“Now, I have my cellphone, and all my numbers have codes,” he said. “I just dial 1 for my wife, 2 for my son, 3 for my parents. No more mistakes.” (info & photo from The New York Times)

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