Tiffin Talk; The Great Indian Phone Book by Robin Jeffrey

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07 March 2013 12:45 pm

According to Robyn Jeffrey, the mobile phone changed humanity's way of life more than any invention since shoes, and the power of the mobile phone is "not in the mobility, it is the autonomy," he says. 

In 2001, India had 4 million cell phone subscribers, or 35 mobiles for every thousand people. Ten years later, that number had exploded to more than 750 million and 658 mobiles per thousand people. Over just a decade, the mobile phone was transformed from a rare and unwieldy instrument to a palm-sized, affordable staple, taken for granted by poor fishermen in Kerala and affluent entrepreneurs in Mumbai alike. The Great Indian Phone Book investigates the social revolution ignited by what may be the most significant communications device in history, one which has disrupted more people and relationships than the printing press, wristwatch, automobile, or railways, though it has qualities of all four.

The book explores the whole ecosystem of the cheap mobile phone. Blending journalistic immediacy with field research, the book portrays the capitalists and bureaucrats who control the cellular infrastructure and wrestle over bandwidth rights, the marketers and technicians who bring mobile phones to the masses, and the often poor, village-bound users who adapt these addictive and sometimes troublesome devices to their daily lives. Examining the challenges cell phones pose to a hierarchy-bound country, the book argues that in India, where caste and gender restrictions have defined power for generations, the disruptive potential of mobile phones is even greater than elsewhere.

The book attempts to explain what can happen when a powerful technology reaches a vast, still predominantly poor population.


About the Lecturer:

Robin Jeffrey, BA (Vic, BC), DPhil (Sussex), Emeritus Professor, Distinguished Fellow, Australia India Institute

Professor Jeffrey's special interest is in the modern history and politics of India. He has written about both Punjab in the north and Kerala in the south and has most recently worked on the Indian newspaper industry and on Indian media more generally. Professor Jeffrey maintains an interest in matrilineal societies, particularly in Kerala in south India, which arose from his doctoral thesis, later published as The Decline of Nayar Dominance. Having worked as a teacher in Punjab, he was driven to try to understand the Khalistan secessionist movement that arose from 1981. This resulted in What’s Happening to India? and a continuing interest in ethnicity, nationalism and identity formation. His two other main interests are ‘development’ in a wide sense (Politics, Women and Well-Being) and newspapers and media (India’s Newspaper Revolution).

His current substantial project is an account of India in the second half of the twentieth century, based on portraits of the six years in which the great Kumbh mela was held (1942, 1954, 1966, 1977, 1989 and 2001). Provisionally entitled ‘Slices of India,’ the project tries to capture the drama of change by drawing attention to the contingencies that decide what paths are followed and what paths, though apparently promising, are ultimately ignored.

Robyn Jeffrey and Aii Chairman Robert Johanson