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).