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'Cell Phone Nation' excerpt: How the mobile phone revolutionised romance in India

IBNLive.com
Feb 15, 2013 at 07:38pm IST

Robin Jeffrey and Assa Doron's book Cell Phone Nation (Publisher: Hachette; Price: Rs 499; Pages: 293) analyses how mobile phones have revolutionised business, politics and ordinary life in India. An excerpt from the book:

Romance, marriage and the mobile

Arranged marriage, sanctioned by both sets of parents, remained a deep-seated institution in India in the first decade of the twenty- first century, despite predictions that it would begin to fade away as India 'modernized'. Mobile phones introduced new possibilities for interaction between men and women, particularly for poor people who were semi-literate or could not read or write at all. The mobile phone had remarkable advantages: it was cheap, pervasive and capable of being used independently out of sight of authority. This was where Raju's second mobile phone served as an example.

Excerpt: 'Cell Phone Nation'

Robin Jeffrey and Assa Doron's book analyses how mobile phones have revolutionised business, politics and ordinary life in India.

When Doron asked about his other mobile, Raju began to reveal a more subversive 'mobile practice', associated with a generation of men and women finding ways to circumvent restrictions surrounding marriage and the household. Raju's first phone, he explained, was a Nokia, primarily used for calls in the city of Banaras. His second mobile, a Reliance brand which tied him to Reliance networks, was used for calls outside the city, particularly to communicate with relatives in Allahabad, most of whom also used Reliance. (Calls within the same network were very cheap.) He used his Reliance mobile daily, or more accurately nightly, to call his soon-to-be wife. She lived in Allahabad, 120 km away. Following established practice, the couple had been allowed to meet face-to-face only twice (and in the presence of family) while the marriage arrangements were proceeding. Raju explained that his prospective wife's brother lent her his own mobile phone every night after 10 pm when calls were cheaper. Raju and his bride-to-be were able to talk for many hours into the night. Neither set of parents knew of these illicit phone calls, which had been taking place for several months. The only member of the family who was aware of, and even facilitated, the nightly conversations was her brother.

In this case, the mobile phone complicated and changed but did not destroy long-standing practices. The authority of elders was subverted, but the brother-sister bond acquired a new thread. As for Raju, his mobile was password-protected, and to assure further discretion he used a code name on his phone for his fiancé's number in case anyone in the household or outside got hold of the phone. Raju's descriptions of these conversations were marked by coyness and excitement. He explained how informative, entertaining and enjoyable the conversations were for both him and his bride-to-be. They had learned much about each other's lives, interests, fears and hopes. Doron suspected that for Raju's bride- to-be the conversations were perhaps even more important than for Raju, because she would soon leave her own home and need to learn to live with people she hardly knew.

Such illicit conversations illustrated how lower-income, lower- status people might acquire opportunities to escape the restrictions imposed on couples prior to marriage. Wealthier, higher- status people sometimes had more opportunity, though for them too notions of propriety in relations between unmarried young people were strict. Raju's intended was likely to experience a degree of discomfort in her new status as daughter-in-law; but the familiarity afforded by these conversations outside the purview of authority figures may have alleviated some of her apprehension. The unsanctioned intimacy established via the mobile phone promised to shape her relationship with Raju and influence the dynamics of the home in unanticipated ways.

Like the letter-writing practices discussed by Foucault and Ahearn, the mobile-phone exchanges operated as a 'technology of the self', facilitating the development of 'self' in diverse and often powerful ways. Phone conversations forged knowledge and understanding of one's self and others. The daily exchanges between Raju and his fiancé generated ideas about intimacy, love and companionship, which the couple explored and discussed. the exercise of agency in the courtship-the 'boy and girl' were no longer simply pieces moved by parents on a marriage chess-board-introduced a new dimension into the institution of arranged marriage, with possible implications for the way a couple would conduct themselves within the joint family.

Much of Raju's conversation with his fiancé involved sharing gossip about the foibles and misdemeanours of friends and family. The 'excessive knowledge' with which his fiancé would now arrive in her new home gave her an improper level of intimacy with her husband-to-be and his family. Unless tactfully used, such knowledge might reflect badly on her. However, it might also arm her with knowledge that would keep her out of trouble and enable her more readily to build a place in her new family.

The mobile phone allowed Raju and his fiancé to cross established boundaries of inside/outside. This could generate tensions capable of reshaping not only the nature of the conjugal relationship, but also the dynamics and solidarity of the family. The intimacy forged by the couple prior to marriage might lead them to seek privileges for their relationship at the expense of the joint family; it might also threaten a family's reputation or allow a newcomer strategic insights into the dynamics of a family. Not surprisingly, Raju used his second mobile carefully so as not to reveal his conversations with his future wife. The mobile was a repository of his most private thoughts, desires and activities.

The mobile phone had the potential to transgress and redefine boundaries between private and public. It could alter practices and function as an unregulated gateway for illicit acts and imagery from the 'outside world' to the 'inside' sphere of families. This potential created both aspirations and concerns. The anxieties of heads of families about mobiles were common, and the prospect of an unmarried woman having a mobile phone was a matter of grave concern for some in Banaras. in the everyday lives of the boatmen, the unmarried woman, especially a daughter, was seen as a financial and social burden. The onset of menstruation and the post-pubescent daughter were associated with danger, impurity and risk to family reputation. Little girls sometimes sold flowers and paraphernalia for rituals to pilgrims and tourists on the ghats. Once a daughter reached puberty, however, she was barred from working on the ghats for fear of compromising her own and her family's honour. For many fathers, their primary objective was to marry off their daughters as soon as possible. Once she left her natal home, the father was relieved of the onus of monitoring the young, vulnerable and dangerously fertile person. For these fathers, the mobile phone was an object of distrust that could generate trials and transgressions, as the story of Shiva and Gitika reveals.

Shiva and Gitika met at a wedding in Banaras where they exchanged a few words, and Shiva gave Gitika his mobile number. Gitika soon called Shiva on his mobile from a public phone, and they began speaking and meeting discreetly. Shiva then bought Gitika a mobile phone so that she did not have to venture to a public phone. Eventually, her father found the mobile and confiscated it. According to Shiva, they had done nothing untoward, and following custom, he asked his parents to pay a visit to Gitika's parents to inquire about marriage prospects.

Because of his good disposition and thriving boating business, Shiva felt that the visit to Gitika's parents would make a favourable impression. Gitika's parents were much poorer, but despite her father's appreciation of Shiva as a person of standing, he was unwilling to let his daughter marry outside her caste, which was considered slightly above that of Shiva's Mallah caste. Both Gitika and Shiva were devastated. On Doron's last visit, Shiva and he were talking on the roof of Shiva's house when Shiva's phone rang. It was Gitika calling from the post office phone. Shiva lowered his voice and moved to a corner of the roof. After the conversation, Doron inquired about their relationship. It was over, Shiva said sadly; there was no use pursuing it further.

This example raises several issues. The discreet relations that can be forged through the mobile phone may transgress boundaries of caste and alter courtship practices. Mobile communication enabled new ways of developing ideas about 'the self', about who one was and about how one presented oneself to others. 'Mobile literacy' enabled people to experiment-even with ideas and practices of courtship, 'love' and 'intimacy'. in the past, lower- status youth, unlike middle-class contemporaries, learned the skills, practices and emotions of everyday life from their fairly narrow surroundings and from films. Middle-class contemporaries, on the other hand, read magazines and novels and often experienced the limited autonomy and wider exchanges that went with a college or high school education. The cheap mobile phone extended possibilities for different social interactions. In a story recounted to Jeffrey, a new bride had never spoken to her father- in-law until one day an urgent need to coordinate family movements led her to have to speak to him on the phone. From then on, they periodically had conversations on the mobile phone, though they rarely spoke face-to-face for anything other than household transactions.

The effects of the mobile phone had an insidious side. The mobile's widespread availability brought new experiences and exposure to wider worlds for people whose wealth, education and status would have insulated them from such disruptions in the past. Tensions arose, but change was not always the outcome. Shiva and Gitika did not end up eloping. Rather, Shiva had tried- and failed-to gain the approval of the elders, for a 'love-arranged marriage', a common theme in Bollywood cinema and public culture. This form of courtship sometimes proved acceptable in reconciling 'individual desire and family responsibility'. For Shiva and Gitika, however, the strategy came to nought. Though their mobile phones challenged the values of Gitika's family, the latter prevailed, without the violence and bloodshed that characterised the stories with which this chapter began. The arrival of the mobile phone in a household posed uncertainties and questions. 'the cell phone', concluded Anand Giridharadas, 'gave the young a zone of individual identity, of private space, that they had never known'. But was India unusual in the way the phone affected families, gender relations and the public imagination?

Horst and Miller in their trail-blazing study of the effects of the mobile phone on society in Jamaica were surprised to find that the phone was valued much more for personal social purposes than for commercial, organisational or emergency use. the cell phone, they wrote, 'changes the fundamental conditions of survival for low-income Jamaicans, because it is the instrument of their single most important means of survival-communication with other people'. For women often living on their own (men having migrated to seek work), the mobile reinforced existing practices of keeping in touch with acquaintances to make it easier to get a loan or other support in times of need. The mobile intensified and extended customs that arose 'from a long gestation in Jamaican history and experience'.

The Jamaican example helps to clarify why the Indian experience is both different and remarkable. In India, the privacy of the mobile phone led people not merely to do old things more intensively; it encouraged people to break with custom and do new things. The place of women and the role of gender in India are notably different from most other places in the world-often more defined and more rigid. The mobile phone began to collide with such rigidities.

Daniel Miller highlighted some of the differences that the mobile phone created by contrasting it-surprisingly-with another new phenomenon: Facebook. The popularity of Facebook in Trinidad, Miller guessed, meant that Trinidadians were 'having less illicit or multiple sexual relationships simply because it has become that much harder to keep these from the public gaze'. That was because 'no one ever knows who might be taking a picture of them and posting it on Facebook'. He concluded that in this way 'Facebook and mobile phones work in direct opposition to each other', since the mobile phone seemed to offer a newfound privacy and one-to-one intimacy. In India, the cheap cell phone enabled young couples to talk to each other unknown to disapproving elders, for daughters-in-law to talk to fathers-in-law as they had not done in the past and for such transactions to occur in tens of millions of families almost daily from the early years of the twenty-first century. As these transactions accumulated, like grains of sand on a wind-swept beach, the dunes of social practice began to shift. The shape they would take was unpredictable, but worth watching and studying.

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