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South India calling...on the road with phones

Jane French of Toronto shares this dispatch:

     Greeting Rick and the Dispatches team:

Inspired by Rick's encouraging words to listeners to share our stories inspired by experiences in other countries, I respectfully submit the following personal essay based on a recent trip to India and the privilege of staying with our family (by marriage) in Tamil Nadu. 

India calling

It was twenty years since our first visit to India and everyone wanted to know what was the biggest change? 

Western-style toilets are more popular than two decades ago.  The price of onions is way up.  And auto rickshaws, trucks, motorbikes, buses and bullock carts now wrestle for space with SUVs and high-end imported cars.  (continues...)



After a 36-hour journey through five airports and 11 time zones, we arrived home from South India.  It was twenty years since my husband and I first visited at the invitation of our new extended family (the result of a Canadian, my brother-in-law, marrying an Indian woman).  This time we stayed for four weeks instead of six months, we brought our 18-year-old daughter along for a crash course in contemporary Indian life and the most frequently asked question on our return was "what's the biggest change in India since your last visit?" 

True, plumbing upgrades, the price of food and traffic congestion are all big issues that reflect growth and growing pains on the subcontinent.  And anglicized city names have reverted back to their original versions: Bangalore is now Bengalaru, Madras is Chennai, Trivandrum is Thiruvananthapuram, and Bombay is Mumbai.
The shopping malls we frequented in Bengalaru with our 20-something computer engineer niece rival many in North America.  And new airlines like Kingfisher and Jet Airways made our domestic travel much faster than the 10-hour overnight bus trips of twenty years ago.  But nothing made a bigger impression on us than the arrival of the mobile phone in India.  

Two decades ago telephone use was problematic.  According to our Indian family, getting a home phone line required months of waiting, complaining and bribes.  Long distance phone calls were prohibitively expensive and usually inaudible.  Sending a fax was next to impossible and e-mail didn't exist.  A birthday greeting to my father in Canada was transmitted via Morse code from a hill station in Gujarat to a telegraph office in Delhi.  This was in 1990, not 1890! 

Now the mobile phone is everywhere.  According to a 2010 study by the United Nations, more people in India have access to a mobile phone than a toilet.  India's mobile subscribers total over 700 million.  In a country of almost 1.2 billion people in which more than half the population earns less than $2 a day, that's a staggering figure.  Compared to Canada, mobile phone rates are unbelievably affordable, pennies a day. 

In most of the homes we visited, family members had at least one mobile phone and land lines were obsolete.   We were given a spare phone by a cousin for unlimited use.  Our daughter was instantly in her comfort zone:  calling, texting and tracking the negligible cost of calls, even when we roamed from state to state.   

From the illiterate auto rickshaw drivers to the 'ITTians' (India's computer engineering generation), all are wedded to their mobile phones.  Even the ubiquitous Indian construction workers, who toil on building sites with no protective gear, have mobile phones.  

Family life is of the utmost importance to Indians.  Mobile phones are the latest accessory at all family gatherings we attended.  Calls are never ignored, even during meal times.  Distinct ring tones featuring the latest Bollywood, Kollywood or Sandalwood movie soundtracks help aunties, uncles, sisters and brothers determine whose phone is ringing. 

On a five-day road trip with our sister-in-law, calls to her mobile phone from family members filled our days.  Most enquiries concerned that all-important Indian topic - food:  what did we have for breakfast/lunch/dinner? Did we have enough to eat? Were the restaurants clean?  Was the food served on banana leaves? The mobile phone provided an almost sacred link between family members in various cities and us travelers.

 When we reached the southern most tip of India at Kanyakumari, a geographic 'Mecca' for India tourists and pilgrims where the Arabian Sea, Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal meet, mobile phones were on high alert.  At sunset on the beach our sister-in-law's movie ring tone signalled more family enquiries:  "Where are you?  Have they seen the sun set? Have they eaten yet?"  Less than twelve hours later, same tune but new location, the rooftop of our hotel: "Where are you? Have they seen the sunrise? Have they had coffee yet?"  The mobile phone provides the vicarious thrill of being close to distant family members even for the most banal exchanges. 

It also came to our rescue when two policemen threatened to impound our mini-van after pulling us over on a mountain road leading to the tea-growing area of Munnar.  The owner of the van had neglected to give our driver proof of insurance.  When reached by mobile phone, he promised to fax the documents to the nearest police station immediately. 

But that wasn't good enough for these law enforcers, who asked for 2000 rupees on the spot -- equal to ten days pay for our driver.  In desperation, we called our only friend in the state of Kerala, an official who befriended us 20 years ago, with whom we'd dined only two nights earlier.  We handed our phone to the cops, a brief conversation followed and we were on our way.  Mobile phone: 1 Heavy-handed cops: 0 -- thanks to the modern miracle of the mobile phone. 

In popular films, mobile phones are more than just props.  In Singam, a current Tamil hit movie, the mustachioed star, Surya, plays a good cop fighting an evil crime boss in Chennai.  Along with fight scenes and romantic song-and-dance numbers, the good cop uses mobile phone technology to catch the bad guy and saves the day. 

The only time mobile phones were not used excessively was to call ahead before dropping by for a visit.  People arrived unannounced morning, noon and night at our family's home.  There was something endearingly low tech about these surprise visits.  The assumption that someone would be home and visitors would be welcome was a given.  Despite the super connectivity that mobile phones bring to the billion plus people of India who need to keep in touch, it's nice that life still has its spontaneous moments.

Jane French, Toronto

March 2011

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