Mobile India: Assa Doron and Robin Jeffrey’s “The Great Indian Phone Book”

By Swati PandeyAugust 15, 2013

Mobile India: Assa Doron and Robin Jeffrey’s “The Great Indian Phone Book”

The Great Indian Phone Book by Robin Jeffrey and Assa Doron

A MAN IN A TURBAN holding a tiny cell phone graces the cover of Assa Doron and Robin Jeffrey’s The Great Indian Phone Book: How the Cheap Cell Phone Changes Business, Politics, and Daily Life. Also bearing the image of a man in a turban holding a tiny cell phone is the cover of a 2007 book: Edward Luce’s In Spite of the Gods: The Rise of Modern India. The only difference in this begging-to-be iconic image? The Luce cover includes a dopey-looking camel; the Doron/Jeffrey man wears clear-rimmed, vintage-inspired glasses.

While Luce’s work, however excellent, approaches India with some mixture of frustration and bewilderment — as many authors have — he treats the cover image of technology with the same tone. In his concluding scene, a talkative 10-year-old boy, sharing an overnight train berth with the author, asks Luce for his cell number, and then immediately phones from his own cell to make sure Luce hasn’t given him fake digits. Given that the scene occurs fairly early in the then-brief history of cell phones, the presence of the phone — and the cleverness of its young owner — is offered as something of a surprise ending.

The strength of Doron and Jeffrey’s Great Indian Phone Book, however, comes from its non-reactionary look at India and the use of mobile phones. Though their cover, like Luce’s, may intend to pique a reader’s interest with a seemingly odd juxtaposition, the text within is an attempt at simple observation. Unlike most books about India or technology — and even though the cell phone has done more in India than, say, the personal computer, the landline phone, or Tata’s cheap Nano car — the authors treat nothing as a shock or a revolution. As Doron and Jeffrey promise in the introduction, their book serves as a reference guide — hence the title, evocative (perhaps ironically) of that yellow-paged brick no one uses anymore.

If that sounds overly mundane, it isn’t. The Great Indian Phone Book is admirably comprehensive, unexpectedly engaging, and underscored with an appreciation for the country Doron and Jeffrey have spent several decades of their professional lives studying as a historian and an anthropologist, respectively. For that warmth of tone, look no further than their fantastic description of how British colonialism came to India: “The East India Company […] slithered into sovereignty.”

Doron and Jeffrey express a modicum of surprise at how recently the cell phone became indispensible to life in India, and not only for the urbanite set. In 1998, there were 18 million telephones in India — triple the amount in 1991, with the increase coming primarily from landlines. This was a lot better than the total when India won independence in 1947: 100,000 phones, or one for every 3,400 people.

Of the travails of phones usage in “pre-mobile India,” the authors write:

The big black bakelite blocks that were telephones […] could be instruments of exquisite torture. They were carefully guarded, often in locked boxes. Lines were often out of order, and if they were working, they crackled like pine needles in the open fire of a hill-station guesthouse. To locate the appropriate person in an office in which one phone served dozens of people called for the patience of Job and the luck of the Irish. Placing a trunk call could involve half a day of waiting for the operator to ring back, frequently with the message that the recipient was unavailable or that the line was out of order.

Even the terms they use might be unfamiliar to an Indian young person, much less a non-Indian reader: Bakelite was an early plastic, and a trunk call simply meant a call between two people, often placed at bright yellow–painted Indian public call booths, called offices, or PCOs. (The characters in Wes Anderson’s 2007 film The Darjeeling Limited, rather than pick up a readily available prepaid Nokia, stop at a PCO, surely because of Anderson’s aesthetics more than the characters’ convenience.)

Today there are 867 million cell phone subscribers in India. It is an astounding number, and the authors allow it to be so, even as they temper the thought by mentioning that it may include significant double counting. Doron and Jeffrey chronicle the complicated policy backdrop of that growth: an economic liberalization in 1991, a national telecom policy adopted in 1994, the start of spectrum auctions in 1995, establishing a telecom regulator in 1997, adopting a second and improved national telecom policy in 1999, strengthening the telecom regulator in 2000, more spectrum auctions, and the arrival of India’s legendary business families to the cell phone game — the Tatas, the Birlas, the Ambanis — in 2003 to build providers dwarfing, say, Sprint.

The process was even more complex than all that: from 1993 to 2012, India had 12 Ministers of Communication. The lucky and non-criminal ones simply left office; the others were fired, charged with corruption, jailed, or in one case killed (though not directly because of his post). The Indian Supreme Court found the auction process so flawed that it revoked more than 100 licenses, and essentially told the country to start over.

The bulk of the authors’ analysis, though, focuses on the people who work in the vast cell phone industry — a legion, it seems, of managers, engineers, technicians, salespeople, lawyers, factory workers, and more — and on the people who use cell phones. For the customer, the authors note,

[I]t did not matter which corporation provided the service or which politicians carved themselves a corrupt slice of the action. What was important was that there was a cell-phone service and that it was cheap and reliable.

That Indian cell phones are inexpensive seems to be the key to their proliferation. India has the lowest call rates in the world, and talk minutes are available — like shampoo, cigarettes, and soap from a roadside vendor — in the tiniest of prepaid chunks, also often from a roadside vendor. A grey market provides even cheaper “China mobiles,” which happens to be the name of an actual Chinese company, but in India is used to suggest bootleg or resold devices.

As it turns out, turbaned men were not the only ones with cell phones, and the authors explore this to the smallest detail. Phones arrived in the hands of ancient mothers-in-law, young lovers, Ganges boatmen, Keralan fishermen, tribal societies with little written language, pornographers, terrorists, thieves — half of all Indians claim to have had a phone stolen — and upstart politicians and their community organizers. (The authors may be the first to draw a parallel between former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh Mayawati, a famed Dalit politician, and Barack Obama, for their use of cell phones to bring in votes.) In Katherine Boo’s finely woven Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, which follows the lives of some of Mumbai’s most powerless people, cell phones appear as casually in the narratives as Doron and Jeffrey might imagine: Boo’s subjects use their devices to rally supporters to a political cause; look at pictures of beautiful women; and develop a sense of individual identity — to the extent that a personalized ringtone develops one’s identity.

Throughout, Doron and Jeffrey take pains not to sensationalize their subject. They spend a scant few pages on the application of cell phones as a way to conduct or document terror attacks, a use that might most interest a Western reader. And rather than raise the specter of so-called honor killings perpetrated because of illicit romantic phone calls, the authors focus on the subtler punishments or the occasional allowances families make for the young Indians transforming “one of the most formidable social institutions in Indian society” — marriage. The authors consistently compare the cell phone to technologies so old that we rarely call them technologies anymore. Citing 19th-century books, plays, and even instruction manuals, they tie the cell phone to the telegraph, the gun, the railroad, and the humble shoe, without which no one could get very far and which, like the phone, are “so close to the skin.”

That intimacy between cell phone and self is perhaps the only way such devices may be, in fact, revolutionary. Doron and Jeffrey released The Great Indian Phone Book not long before Edward Snowden’s leaks about surveillance at home and abroad spurred a global debate about the dangers of big data. But they do discuss using cell phone records to make terrorism convictions and to illegally leak sensitive information. Supplementary books — expanding on the subject, or studying the phone in other countries including the United States — would do well to study the phone for its all-knowingness. No other object seems so capable of revealing so much about us — our politics, our curiosities, our relationships, our every step — to anyone tuning in.


Swati Pandey is a Los Angeles–based writer.

LARB Contributor

Swati Pandey is a writer based in Los Angeles.


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