They were in love, long chats and text messages were the proof. Then Vinita lost the mobile phone, lost the phone numbers. The love story ended.
Every pervasive technology has a significant effect on society and it is no different for mobile phones in India. At the last count there are eight hundred million of them and increasing. These phones are used by one and all. Life that remained static for millennia, chained to the age old traditions, norms and technology has been changed by the very latest gadget, that crept into their midst almost overnight, with the melody of the ring tones. No one could have foretold their impact.
In the developed countries, mobile phones are part of a gradual improvement in the communication system, from the mail, telegraph, and fixed phones and now to the mobile phones, the effect of which, at best, has been only marginal.
The Indian situation is fundamentally different: mobile phone is a revolution in person to person contacts; it has not been a slow transition. It has provided a new identity for the owner, much beyond a device for communication.
The good old postal system of India relied on personal contacts and family linkages to guide that occasional letter from the loved one afar to the right person. The street name and house numbers are mostly non-existent, and even today, it is the social connectedness that provides identity for information delivery. When the address includes “Ravi Kumar, son of Ramesh Sinha (usually written as s/o), opposite to Minerva Cinema”, there can be no privacy, the post man would have already told the neighbours
“The son of Sinhaji, Ravi got a letter from Mumbai. Usually he doesn’t get letters from Mumbai”.
The news has spread. Many questions will follow.
The situation with the fixed phones is much worse; the available few have to be shared with the neighbours and family. With the habits and poorer technology, one has to shout into the phone, waking up neighbours a hundred feet away.
The mobile phones have changed all that. For the first time, Indians have been freed from the tyranny of social pressures imposed by lack of privacy. The loving concern by all to know whom and what you are talking has been exorcised. Finally freedom has arrived, to communicate, without any one else knowing, without revealing identities. Ravi is no more a Sinha by caste, no more the son of Ramesh, no more lives opposite to Minerva Cinema. At last he is just a number in the cyber space, cut loose from the anchors of tradition and family identities. He has a mobile phone identity, and he can talk to any one with no one else knowing about it. He is free.
Western societies have attained this level of atomised freedom progressively; it has been a slow evolution, of notions of private property, space and above all privacy. The mobile phones did not make a sudden change, as it happened in India
Traditionally, romance is very rare in India, love marriage rarer. Arranged marriage is an interfamily affair, with matching of religion, caste and sub-caste, compatibility of family status, alignment of horoscopes and other intangibles. The absence of privacy and opportunity to have direct contacts between girls and boys helped the traditional system.
For the young Indians, trapped in the web of obligations and duties to the family, the mobile phones are an island of privacy and autonomy where the fantasy of romance can take tenuous steps to reality. A girlfriend or boyfriend has become the symbol of progress and westernisation. The modern young Indian has arrived, armed with mobile phone and endowed with privacy.
This new mobile centric romance is un-chartered territory, has its own unprecedented opportunities and perils. In India, many young men, make random calls, hoping that it will land on a girl’s phone. Some have been successful through these “wrong number calls”. It is the Indian romance lottery.
Sunil, originally from a fishing village, now an educated 24 year old textile export executive in Coimbatore tried his luck, was thrilled to hear a feminine voice.
He started with the common Indian mobile pick up line;
“Your voice is so sweet”
They talked, they texted and sexted. Sunil wanted a modern girl to be his wife, a partner in his dreams of a management career, frequent trips abroad and socialising with his foreign clients. The romance blossomed. He talked to the parents of this unseen girl. One day, Sandhya along with her parents came from Madras to Sunil’s office, to talk about the marriage arrangements.
Sunil was shocked to find this un-sophisticated girl, not the image that came through the phone. Unable to withstand pressure from the girlfriend’s family, Sunil attempted suicide. Investigation revealed that the girl had taken help from her friend, all of the text messages and some of the calls were answered by her friend.
In western societies there are slowly evolved conventions that guide boy-girl contacts. They emerged simultaneous with economic independence of women, and the legal rights related to individual freedom and privacy. In India, the effects of globalisation has ushered in an era of economic and educational opportunities and freedom for the women, increased income levels, and flood of information about western ways, without the corresponding changes in the social values and legal systems. Indian society is in a state of transition. The reality is miles behind expectations.
This has prompted the young to explore the possibilities beyond a settled and stable family life that the traditional marriages offered. The young who earlier avoided the forbidden fruits of romance are now reaching for them in droves on the crutches of mobile phones.
Many school going girls are having mobile phones, at times given by their boyfriends;
According to Lalitha, a sixteen year old,
“We hide the mobile phones from our parents, some times we give it to our friends to keep at night and they bring it to school in the morning
“At home we only use the text, and put the phone on silent, so that no one knows”, that is Smitha’s technique for phone romance.
The mobile phone was given to Radha, by her parents, to let them know when she will be late to come home.
Radha, a first year PUC student found better uses;
“I use the phone to chat with my boyfriend, but he pays for the recharge, so that my parents won’t know”.
As it is the usual practice in India, Nikhil Nair and his two friends were following a group of girls at the museum in Cochin. The girls had to deposit their handbags at the door, and had to write their phone number in the register. Nikhil followed, noted the number and called the next day.
“How was the Ravi Varma painting, you are more beautiful than the painting”, a new mobile romance line.
That was three years ago. After one year of substantial phone bills, now she is Sneha Nair. That is an exception.
Mobile phones have spawned romance every where, most are a teenage “time pass”, as they are called. A few key strokes can send hours of texting and sexting into oblivion, restoring the pristine arranged marriage innocence. They leave no evidence like love letters with unmistakable handwritings, to be brandished by the wrong hands.
For the first time, the young Indians are ordering spicy pizzas of romance as an appetiser to be followed by the staid rice and sambar of arranged marriage. It is causing no stomach upsets.
The Indian value system has survived the millennia, adapting and weaving through successive waves of cultural invasions, always preserving the tradition. The new technology of mobile phones has provided a romantic prelude with one while arranging the marriage with another.
With urbanisation, the contacts of extended family and friends in finding a suitable marriage partner has been usurped by the matrimonial websites. It has become the exclusive duty of the parents to scour the web and make a short-list of prospective candidates, after ensuring the religion, cast, sub-caste and horoscope matches.
Anil was given the mobile number of Neetu by his mother. He was asked to talk to her;
When Anil made this cold call, Neetu knew what it was all about.
They were both in IT profession, had a lot in common; they chatted and texted across a thousand kilometres.
“How did the Christmas party go last night”, Anil enquired
“It was great; I got up next day, only around twelve”. Neetu said as a matter of fact
Anil made some more prodding conversations and found that Neetu drinks alcohol, which was a definite no-no to his Brahmin upbringing.
Next day Anil’s mother called Neetu’s parents to say that they had been to a good astrologer and the horoscopes have an incompatibly at the “nineth house”.
The time tested astrology has come to the help, to camouflage an embarrassing detail, gleaned through the most modern technology.
The ancient Sanskrit verses of astrology are chanted to the tune of mobile phone ring tones. Astrology and mobile phone, both are winners. Who is the loser?
The case of Rahul is very different. He got on very well with Sapna, after Rahul’s mother gave the mobile number.
Rahul and Sapna claim to their friends that theirs was not an arranged marriage, but a true modern love marriage, the ultimate symbol of modernity for a young Indian. They have asserted their individuality and preferences in the most important decision of their life, whom to marry, that is what they wanted their friends to believe. Once again, astrology and mobile phone are the winners. Is there a looser here?
The mobile phones have been fully absorbed into the Indian romance and marriage traditions. The religion, caste, sub-caste, horoscope and parents have retained their traditional dominant role.
Many a bedecked bride and groom reach the altar of arranged marriage in front of a Hindu deity after their sojourn through the “time pass” romance, now offered by the mobile phones. The karmic trace of these romances, wiped out by pressing a few buttons on the mobile phones, on the way.
At times, this elegant confluence of romance and arranged marriage could be a tragedy to the unwary, as it happened to Deepak. He was in a long mobile phone romance with Sarita, his colleague in another office of the IT company. He managed to get a transfer to the same city, and finally approached the girl’s family. They refused, and the girl acquiesced to the family wishes, married some one else. Deepak was heart broken, had an untimely death.
Indian mobile phone romance is a shallow interaction with erasable commitments, at times with sex devoid of emotional anchors. One thing for certain, mobile romance has erased the expectations of virginity in arranged marriages. This type of romance, as most Indian view it, is only a prelude to settling down with some one else where religion caste and horoscope reign supreme.
The new technology has been absorbed into the matrix of arranged marriage with a position assigned to it, so that it cannot challenge the tradition, but becomes a part of it.
The great Indian culture which flourished through the millennia by assimilating multitude of influences has done it again, this time with finesse and élan. Romance is age old, Mobile phones are new. Then there is Indian Romance on mobile phones.