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Cell Phones, iPads, and the Changing Indian Psyche

In New York on Jan. 10, 2011, Anand Giridharadas describes how India's evolving consumer culture empowers more and more poor and middle-class Indians. (2 min., 47 sec.)
by Anne Kirkup
12 January 2011

NEW YORK, January 10, 2011 – Of all the changes India is undergoing, the most important lies in the shifting Indian mentality, acclaimed columnist and author Anand Giridharadas said here at the Asia Society. "The deepest change that I witnessed in India was not in what its factories were building or what its programmers were coding; it was in the mind, in how people conceived of their possibilities."

Giridharadas was joined in conversation by Sree Sreenivasan, Dean of Student Affairs and Digital Media Professor at Columbia School of Journalism, contributing editor at DNAinfo.com and co-founder of the South Asian Journalists Association (SAJA).

A native of suburban Cleveland, Giridharadas grew up hearing idealized stories of his parents' homeland. As a Bombay-based correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, he traveled across India meeting individuals whose stories fill the pages of India Calling. In the process, he discovered a rapidly changing society experiencing a sea change in its self-image. 

India's burgeoning consumer culture has empowered the individual in ways heretofore unknown in what was traditionally a community-centric culture. "Today about half of Indians have a cell phone," Giridharadas observed. "Two-thirds of Indians live on two dollars a day, so the cell phone has made pretty significant inroads among people who fall below the UN's definition of extremely poor. You don't need anyone's permission; you don't need to know anybody; you don’t need to ask the government for anything… That kind of empowerment is just one example."

Though Giridharadas noted the many inequities still rampant in Indian society, he nonetheless argued that the Indian marketplace is in some ways more egalitarian than its American counterpart. "The iPad suggests what's right and what's wrong with America's direction," Giridharadas said. "In some ways, it's amazing that whenever something like the iPad is invented, it's always America that invented it. The French did not invent iPads. You can feel quite proud that America is always on the cutting edge. But the iPad raises a question for me about whether America is barking up the right innovation tree.

"In India, the innovation culture is, 'Wow, I built a cell phone that 50 million Indians can afford. How could I build one that 700 million could afford? In America, I feel that the dominant culture is 'I built a phone that 50 million people can afford. How can I build something (like the iPad) that five million people could afford?' Given the very real economic problems that are happening—given the kind of pummeling of the middle class that people talk about—I think it would actually behoove Americans to think [the way Indians do]." 

Reported by Ben Linden