Connecting to the Future

NEW DELHI – One of my favorite photographs shows a Hindu sadhu right out of central casting – naked body, long matted hair and beard, ash-smeared forehead, rudraksha-mala around his neck, the works – chatting away on a mobile phone. The contrast says so much about the land of paradoxes that is today’s India – a country that, as I wrote years ago, manages to live in several centuries at the same time.

There is something particularly special about the sadhu and his cell phone, because it is in communications that India’s transformation in recent years has been most dramatic.

When I left India in 1975 to go to the United States for graduate studies, there were perhaps 600 million Indians and just two million land-line telephones. Having a telephone was a rare privilege: if you were not an important government official, a doctor, or a journalist, you might languish on a long waiting list and never receive a phone. Members of parliament had among their privileges the right to allocate 15 telephone connections to whomever they deemed worthy.

Moreover, a phone, if you had one, was not necessarily a blessing. I spent my high school years in Calcutta, and I remember that if you picked up your phone, there was no guarantee that you would get a dial tone; if you got a dial tone and dialed a number, there was no guarantee that you would reach the number you sought, and you heard an exasperated “wrong number!” more often than a friendly “hello.”