December 01, 2005

Destructive revolution

Ramkumar is a genial sort, so friendly that I forgive him his habit of chewing paan constantly and talking to me in that ghastly way paan-chewers have. You know: mouth closed, jaw up to beat gravity, mumbles instead of words.

Ramkumar is our dhobi. Once a week, he stops by to drop off our washed linens and pick up another load. Always has a kind word for the kids (yes, even through that mouthful of paan), and our daughter, in particular, delights in seeing him.

In the middle of 2003, incoming calls to mobile phones became free. This was the trigger for the great phone boom in this country. And sure enough, just weeks after that, Ramkumar had one in his pocket. But not, as it turned out, for his use. He told us he was soon making a trip to his village in Uttar Pradesh, to give the phone to his aging parents. Till then, he explained, the only way he could get in touch with them went like this. He had to make a call to the nearest STD booth to their home -- five km away (!). He had to persuade the owner to send someone with a message to his parents. At a prearranged time the next day, they would be in the STD booth waiting for him to call again.

No more. Now they would have a phone right in their home.

What a breathtaking change in their lives. The STD revolution was itself breathtaking, but the transformation mobile phones have wrought is on another scale altogether; and for me, it was Ramkumar's story that first drove that home.

But Ramkumar's story also drove home another, more subtle point: about a long-unquestioned assumption. Ramkumar is, after all, a dhobi. Washes clothes for a living. There are entire generations of us Indians who have grown up with the ingrained belief that such a person as a dhobi can't afford such a thing as a phone. (And certainly not to gift to his parents). Why should that be? Well, it's simply the way things are in India, didn't you know?

I'm not happy, I'm not proud, but there it is: one of those assumptions about India that all of us simply internalize.

But then my dhobi got himself a phone. Doing so, he forced me to reconsider that long-held assumption. Not just because he had one, but because many other dhobis have them too. And rickshaw-drivers. And waiters. And vegetable-sellers. And a young cook I met in a slum yesterday. And ... well, you get the idea.

The mobile phone came to India, as these things always seem to do in India, as a tool and plaything of the rich. A symbol of wealth, in fact. As many others before me have pointed out, it has now really become a tool of the poor, the lower-middle classes. (In fact, the irony is that these days, it is the landline that is the symbol of wealth).

Few things make me optimistic for my country. But this, unequivocally, is one. Because mobile phones are now affordable to so many, yes; because so many have them, yes; because Ramkumar can now reach his parents without needing to persuade someone to cycle 5 km, yes.

But most of all, because the mobile phone has reached out and utterly destroyed that assumption I mentioned earlier. The mobile phone is the first such thing that has made the crossing from the rich to the not-so-rich. And that seems to me the real revolution.

Now I wonder what other such things will follow in its wake. Swimming pools? Tennis courts? Cars? Computers? Affordable housing? Holidays in France? Education?

You tell me. And if you have any suggestions on getting Ramkumar to stop chewing paan, I'm all ears. I might even give you his phone number so you can tell him yourself. (Yes, he got himself another phone).


Anonymous said...

Oh man! Dilip! I am reading your columns/articles from last 5/6 years. I like what you write. And I was always optimistic that one day I will definitely get to read something from you that is good about India! Something that you will find, from the bottom of you heart, good happening in India. finally I see it.
Though that is not what you intended but you did it anyway. Good. Indirectly you did accept that privatization, opening up of market is helping India and poor people of India (at least to some extent).

Would like to hear one such good thing about Hindus. though haven't read direct attack but read about your praise for songs (or whatever that is) at the mosques etc. but only references to caste system when it comes to Hindus. If its temple the 'bhikaris' are described but if its the mosque the people feeding 'bhikaris' are talked about :)

I need not say all of this... you know it very well yourself. BTW I like that "I am not leftist...."

Neela said...

Dilip a nice personal vignette but not surprising. Mobile phones have crossed economic boundaries quite a while ago and every once in a while you hear about fishermen in kerala who have benefitted from the cellphone boom and the fact that the sizzling market today is sub-Saharan Africa.

Another example of this crossing of economic boundaries: the sachet industry in India which has brought hitherto unaffordable luxuries to the masses - e.g shampoos.

In fact, I think a lot of the marketing boom in the cellphone industry is a result of FMCG (fast moving consumer goods - HLL/P&G and the like) marketing professionals moving to such industries - and thinking about cellphones as FMCG products - low unit price, high volume, tremendous distribution and penetration.


Anonymous said...

I don't know why this anonymous is waiting for Dilip to write positive things about India.
India has negative things and we need some to highlight in media.
Let's accept that and give him some credit.

Yeah.. Dilip goes overboard calling for invasion of India etc, but cut the guy some slack will you, sometimes deadlines, time pressure who knows.. maybe he was having a bad day.

And oh.. on praises for Hindus from Hindu, LOL... you do have a good sense of humour Anonymous 9:53 pm :-)
Pigs will fly before.. ouch that would be communal to say that.

- not a leftist, not a rightist, not a typist, not an athesist, not a secularist, not a communalist....

Dilip D'Souza said...

Neela, yes it's not surprising, but what I'm really getting at is not the boom so much as the way it is forcing a change in mindsets. The mindsets that told us that a dhobi would not be able to afford such a luxury as a phone. Those are crumbling.

So really, I'm waiting to see what other things crossover like phones ans sachets. Will tennis courts do it? Pools? What? After all, the same mindset has applied to those too.

Anirudh Karnick said...

Good one.

Michael Higgins said...

Hi Dilip
Interesting vignette. Actually Gaurav Sabnis wrote about something very similar recently. It is a remarkable thing.

I was curious about one thing: the etymology of the term "landline". In the US, a term for a phone connect to a physical network is called a "LAN-line" or local area network line. Did this term cross over to India and become "landline"? Possibly.

Btw, why do you want your Ramkumar to stop eating paan? Unless gets juices on your clothing I would say that it is his choice, don't you think?

Sunil said...

You phones are one of the few things that make me more optimistic about a good chunk of Africa as well.....leave alone India.

Incredible, what an empowering tool it's been.

Right know, my parents are the only people i know who still don't have a cell phone (our house maid has one, the apartment watchman has one, the newspaper delivery man has one, the milkman has one......)

Gaurav said...

Now I wonder what other such things will follow in its wake. Swimming pools? Tennis courts? Cars? Computers? Affordable housing? Holidays in France? Education?

Power power power. Give them power. One of our ingrained assumptions is that poor people in villages live on 6-8 hrs of power a day. And no one sees anything wrong with it. Open up the power sector and you will see many poor people lgiht up at "bijli" like the old lady in Swades.

Education too. Considering that culturally and historically we are education-crazy people, an artifical supply constraint keeps people illiterate and uneducated. Implement the coupon system, encouraging private enterprise, and we'll see dhobis and bhajiwaalas speaking "english", something thought of as belonging only to the elite, like the mobile phones once were.

Dilip D'Souza said...

Michael, I didn't know landlines are called LAN-lines in the US. Perhaps the etymology went the other way, from here to there?

I think it was the Atlantic that had an interesting piece a few years ago about how some words come into use all of a sudden for things that have been very familiar all along, "landline" being a case in point.

Why do I want Ramkumar to stop chewing paan? One, because I find it a disgusting habit. Two, because it's a threat to his health and I like the dude. It's his choice, sure, but I feel like I can suggest it from time to time.

Sunil, obviously you don't know my parents, also cellphone-less. I wonder if there's a cellphone-less parents association.

phucker said...

!?@?!?! Is the world spinning in a different direction today? ?? Is this some new found trick to confound ranters like yours truly? Or dare I say that I have misjudged you Mr. D'Souza? No. No. I cannot be wrong, or a misjudger, something is not right...

(Umm, if u haven't figured it, this a roundabout way of saying great post. You need be at the Delhi Blog Meet, BTW).

A post from my older blog, written a long time to ago, to act as a condiment to your post.

Anonymous said...

I'm an undergrad in Austin, Texas, and it's actually "landline" in the US, too; I believe the term "landline" predates the term "LAN".

Pools, tennis courts, and cars will probably stay expensive just because they're big. Cell phones are rapidly /becoming/ computers; the rise of external storage, keyboards, and maybe even goggles or large screens for cell phones would not completely astound me. Affordable housing, education, and 24-hour reliable electricity will probably depend on government subsidies, but you never know: all three of these could also be affected purely by technology. As to holidays in France, well, that's a good question. :)

-willwarner at mail utexas edu

Anonymous said...

Hey dilip the article which was published was ultimate to indian standards. I am delighted at least India is known for the simple illustration which you gave. I hope one of the best examples of globalization. Hey man can you try for the maruti car when "Indira Gandhi" once told to the press and at the time of Maruti suzuki/800 release "A car for poor".

Keep it up dude