'It was clear that the cell phone gave her access to a temptation that destroyed her family… she’d never have strayed without it.'
Illustration: Dominic Xavier/Rediff.com.
Increasing cell phone penetration among India’s rural areas has been one of the three thrusts of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s poverty alleviation effort. However, a recent migrant to Delhi, Sanju Devi, told me a story that made me realise that not everybody is that thrilled with the ubiquity of mobile devices.
It began when she said she didn’t possess a cell phone because her husband and most of her family didn’t believe women should have them. “They say that cell phones lead women to temptation,” she said.
Sanju Devi belongs to Madhubani district in Bihar, a district where, once upon a time, apparently all virtuous women were content to live within the confines of their homes. One of these women was Radha Bhabhi. Unlike many other families in the village, Radha and her husband had chosen not to migrate, but to stay back and look after the family’s agricultural land.
“She was like the Lakshmi of the household,” Sanju recounted. “There was always something to eat in the kitchen and she kept the house in mint condition.” Under her expert supervision, the eldest daughter was married off as soon as she turned 18. Her younger daughter was in school and her son migrated to Delhi and got a job as an electrician. With his first salary, he fondly bought his mother a cheap cell phone. That’s when the fun began.
“In our village, women are traditionally expected to go out only when necessary, and when accompanied by their husband or son,” said Sanju Devi.
However, the cell phone opened a window of freedom for Radha Bhabhi, for it connected her to the outside world even when she was cooped up indoors. It so happened that the local shopkeeper gave her his number saying he’d deliver goods to her house whenever she called for them.
This convenient system continued for a few months, and then the unthinkable happened. Radha Bhabhi and her teenage daughter boarded the bus to her native village (duly escorted by her son of course) -- and disappeared.
The disconcerted family searched for her high and low, but to no avail. Eventually, she was found living with the shopkeeper, with whom she had been engaged in a passionate phone romance for the last few months. The repercussions echoed across the village, and beyond.
“We’d all seen what a good mother and virtuous wife she used to be,” said Sanju Devi. “It was clear that the cell phone gave her access to a temptation that destroyed her family… she’d never have strayed without it.”
Perhaps, I said mildly, chastity wasn’t as contingent upon opportunity as Sanju Devi and her family believed. Did she really think that lack of temptation was the only reason so many women were monogamous? Surely owning a cell phone wasn’t the reason why Radha Bhabhi chose to decamp with another man. Sanju Devi wasn’t convinced and to be honest, I didn’t expect her to be.
“You are innocent to the ways of this world,” she told me, with what I almost hoped was a delicious shiver. “These days everything -- and I mean everything -- can happen just on the phone.”
Cell phones were an effective way to communicate, stay safe and these days, pay one’s bills, I told her. And yes, perhaps they empowered women and opened up a window to the freedom that is their birthright.
Sanju Devi pondered my speech for a while. “Perhaps,” she said hesitantly, “now that we’ve migrated to Delhi, and I will probably have to get a job to contribute to the household, I’ll tell him I need to get a cell phone too.”
I’d like to believe that the metaphor wasn’t lost on her.