Dial M for change

Nandini Nair | Updated on January 23, 2018 Published on August 14, 2015
Anywhere and everywhere: The cellphone has catapulted numerous Indians into the worldwide web, bypassing the world of computers. Photo: M Srinath

Anywhere and everywhere: The cellphone has catapulted numerous Indians into the worldwide web, bypassing the world of computers. Photo: M Srinath   -  The Hindu

Poonam with her son Prashant at Delhi’s Lotus Temple just before he left for boarding school in Darjeeling.

Susheela moved to Chennai from Chidambaram three years ago

Susheela moved to Chennai from Chidambaram three years ago

Digital native: Kannan of the Bettakurumba tribe bought his first cellphone in high school

Digital native: Kannan of the Bettakurumba tribe bought his first cellphone in high school


Across India, mobile phones have given millions of people what they didn’t have before — access to their loved ones and the world beyond, and autonomy

On July 31, 1995, a call was made from Calcutta to Delhi. It changed everything. Or, nearly everything — from how we work, spend time, romance, betray, to how we fall asleep. The call travelled from the then Minister of Communications Sukh Ram to West Bengal chief minister Jyoti Basu. Little did those two hoary gentlemen know that the device they held would give millions of Indians — (over 900 million, at last count) — what they had not before, autonomy. Here was a gadget that was as deeply personal as footwear — not to be shared, not to be asked for and which could cover improbable distances. The cellphone freed individuals from the tyranny of the household landline and its whimsical workings. Gone were the days of waiting in line at a PCO, or sharing spectrum with family members, or getting news three weeks too late. And, suddenly, there was little need to plan ahead. The cellphone became a personal beacon for the here and now. By bringing instantaneity, it opened up a world of possibilities. It has changed lives in multiple ways, whether by making it easy to keep in touch or do business or how we spend our leisure time. The cellphone also catapulted millions of Indians into the worldwide web, bypassing the world of computers.

Take the case of Poonam Singh. She hails from Darjeeling, her mother a tea picker and father, a supervisor in the tea estates. She first came to Delhi 12 years ago, looking for employment. With the help of her sister-in-law, she soon found work as the stay-in help of a family in the posh South Delhi neighbourhood of Vasant Vihar. Back then, she would call her family once in two or three weeks, from a PCO in the nearby market. In 2006, she bought her first cellphone, and is today the proud owner of a Micromax Unite. She continues to work with the same family, has earned a reputation for her perfect mutton cutlets and lightweight rotis, but her modes and channels of communication have changed beyond recognition.

We meet in the spic-and-span two-room quarter she shares with her sister Satya. The walls are decorated with photos of her nine-year-old son, Prashant, now studying at a boarding school in Darjeeling. Always quiet, today Poonam is quieter still as she has just got a WhatsApp message from her son’s school. It isn’t good news. He has failed in most subjects. She worries about the future, whether she should remove him from school, send him to his grandparents’ house or wait for him to settle down.

Her WhatsApp status messages often tell of her state of mind. She changes her display photo often — from portraits of herself juxtaposed with flowers to inspirational quotes. Today’s message reads: Itni thokare dene ke liye shukriya, Eh-Zindagi / Chalne ka na sahi, sambalne ka hunar to aa gaya (Thank you, Life, for all the knocks you’ve dealt me. You may have not taught me how to walk, but you have taught me the art of survival.)

Poonam has never used a computer and considers cybercafés to be places of disrepute. But when it comes to her phone, she is a pro. She tells me to switch on the Bluetooth so that she can transfer photos. She arches her eyebrow as I fumble through my settings. Of course she has a Facebook account, with hundreds of friends on it. She even uses Viber to stay in touch with close pals in Singapore. But most importantly, with her cellphone she gets to speak to her son twice or thrice a week. A generous boy in class XI has a cellphone and he allows mother and son to connect. With Prashant’s marks weighing on her mind, the forthcoming conversation will be a hard one for a concerned mother in Delhi and a young son in Darjeeling.

Just a ring away

There are roughly 400 million internal migrants in India, according to the 2011 census. For many of them, removed from family and homes, the cellphone becomes a lifeline to distant children and wives. No news is too small or too petty to be messaged across. After all what are filial relationships built on but the exchange of the mundane and the everyday? Rajdev Pandey, a migrant from Bihar who has now lived in Kolkata for 40 years, is keeping track of his children with the cellphone, just like Poonam. He speaks to his seven children nearly every day, querying them about their studies and work. Life was very different when he first moved to the city. He spent his days rolling rasgullas and frying samosas without calling home for months. He made annual visits to his village when the rains lashed down. This is when he checked on his crops, married, and fathered his progeny. The news of the birth of a child would reach him by post, often three weeks after the event. When the first cellphone arrived in his village, it was initially considered common property and used to convey news of emergencies. Today, in Pandey’s village house alone there are eight cellphones; one each for the children and his wife. Within a decade all eight have hewn an individual connection with their loved ones and the world.

If the cellphone has helped connect families, it also separates this generation from the previous. While the elders in the family might concede the utility of the phone for staying in touch, for many younger people the phone is a defining device for work. Kannan is a dapper 24-year-old belonging to the Bettakurumba tribe in the lush hills of Gudalur in the Nilgiris. His Adivasi parents are labourers. Back in Class X, working as a daily wager after school, Kannan had saved enough money to buy his first phone — a Nokia 1100, but of course. Even as a high school student he foresaw the value of the gadget. After leaving school, he worked in Kochi for a few years and is today back in Gudalur with The Shola Trust. He has spent the last few months mapping the growth and spread of lantana in Mudumalai, Bandipur and Wayanad. While he used his first phone for SMS and calls, to stay in touch with friends, today his phone is his office. He uses it for accounting, research and coordination, and is adept at Google calendar, Google docs and other applications. His parents have stayed clear of owning a cellphone, but when they wish to speak to a relative, they use Kannan’s or his elder sister’s.

But keeping track of loved ones can also prove a hazardous affair. Susheela, who arrived in Chennai three years ago from Chidambaram (where she helped her family cultivate rice and til), learnt this the hard way. Of large build and sashaying hips, she works as a domestic help in five homes in Chennai. Her taxi-driver husband has signed up as an Ola driver and recently bought a Toyota Etios. But Susheela isn’t too pleased. She feels that his ‘work trips’ to Mahabalipuram are a façade for a rendezvous with his lover. Using her teenage son’s help, she recorded her husband on the phone. She plays her husband’s entreaties to the Saidapet lover on loop: “When shall we meet? You know I like the way your hair smells. Next time do adorn your hair with malli pu (jasmine flowers).” She refuses to delete the recording, saving it as a reminder of her husband’s errant ways and a spur for her own wrath. While the cellphone might have allowed her to trap her husband (he promises to redeem his ways), she turns to “higher authorities” for possible solutions. On the bidding of a sadhu, she observes a maun vrat (vow of silence and fasting) once a week to try and keep her husband on the straight and narrow track. When her phone rings on Fridays, she pays no heed to it.

Brief respite

We are so accustomed to hearing phones ring and seeing faces cast in a blue glow that we deem their absence as something amiss. Home to roughly 130 men, the urban shelter opposite the National Club of Fatehpuri in Old Delhi tells an altogether different — and a rather silent — cellphone story. Men with no permanent address in the Capital pay ₹10 to spend 24 hours in this clean but spartan barrack. It is Sunday afternoon, and most of them are swathed in heavy sleep. We notice cellphones in a few hands, and the owners say they have had them only for three or four days. We are puzzled at that. Brajesh, who works with Society for the Promotion of Youth and Masses and visits the shelter every day, says the men don’t hold on to their phones for long as they sell them for their next fix — whether it’s drugs, alcohol or eraser fluid. Paras, a 19-year-old who works as a bus cleaner/ loader/ labourer bought his ‘Chinese’ phone for ₹300 a few days ago. He hasn’t saved any numbers on it, because he has no family to stay in touch with. He doesn’t know where they are, and they don’t know he is at a ‘rain basera’. Perhaps he will sell his phone in a few days. But for now, Angry Birds is keeping him busy and away from the realities of the street. For 24 hours, that is autonomy.

Published on August 14, 2015
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