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Mam, Check Your Mobile

Indu’s tuition classes aren't just low-tech, they're decidedly no-tech. The children bring their textbooks, their pencils, and the nubs of worn out erasers, and sit cross-legged on the floor. We gamely fold our legs under us and sit through many tuition classes to assist the children with their basic English homework. The kids take their homework seriously, so we’re often the bearer of bad news when we point out a misspelled english word, or, when something is true, not false. They spend hours memorizing facts and can spew them as easily as if they’re robots fed with an insatiable long-life battery. English is just one of the languages they are learning, alongside Hindi, Marathi and Urdu. They also know my smartphone is in the pocket of my bag, ready to be grabbed when they need to prove a point. This is when we hear, “Mam, check your mobile”.

My smartphone is the go-to tool when we are fact-finding for fun or facing a dilemma of grand proportions as is always the case with eight-year-old Shivani, who takes being right to a dizzying level. She has an unwavering ability to stand statue still, as if her hands were bolted to her sides, her gaze straight ahead at the wall, while answering rapid fire questions from her text book, but, she’s suddenly very animated when she’s told her answer isn’t correct. She grabs for the phone to conduct a thorough search for the answer she’s seeking. She’s never satisfied with the first page of Google searches. Grasping the phone in her tiny hands, her small fingertips expertly tap out the search words, until she’s satisfied she’s done all she can to find the answer. Right or wrong, she’s only satisfied with an answer from Google.

Sofian with one of his YouTube tutorial products.

Twelve-year-old Sofian scrolls through websites or YouTube videos looking for inventions that he can copy, or be inspired by. When he finds an experiment he likes, he watches the video over and over until we remind him how much data he’s using. Once inspired, he scrounges the laneways and the garbage for parts, maybe spends a few rupees on hard to scrounge items, and a few days later we’ll be treated to a show and tell of a miniature hovercraft made from water bottles and a balloon, or an air conditioner made with a jar, wires, and an old battery. He also likes to draw, but won’t use his own imagination, insisting instead that he finds a how-to video to draw a menagerie of animals, the planets, a bouquet of flowers, or city street scene. His imagination kicks in when he fills in the white spaces in his drawings, ignoring the lines, with technicolour slashes and dots. It’s his ‘ta-da!” moment.

Omkar, who’s six years old, needed some stitches on his toe. The wait time at the hospital was long, hot, and boring. I gave him my phone and he quickly searched and downloaded a game to play while the wait dragged on and on. For more than an hour, while I watched the ceiling fan and the comings and goings of other patients, all I heard was the ding of the phone, the whizzing sound of the game, and Omkar’s fingers tapping furiously. It almost took his mind off the overheard cries of other children receiving injections. Several animated games, and Snapchat, take up space on my phone, courtesy of Omkar, Arpan and Dinesh and Noorsaba.

The children looking at a germ infested hand on a website.

In the distressing wake of five-year-old Latifa’s death from tetanus, and some recent typhoid cases in the community, we talked for days to the children about hand washing, sneeze control, wearing shoes in the laneways, and not drinking water from leaking taps. They listened to our health conversations with one eye on the door while putting their books back in their bags. A few days later, a news item popped up on my news feed that made me gasp because of what I know about hygiene in the community. The story was about a scientist and mother, who pressed her eight-year-old’s hand into a petri dish. What it revealed was a handprint of an assortment of germs, some benign and some frightening. Ahh, I thought the kids will love this. They are desensitized by much of what goes on in their community, whether it’s filth, noise, or the next door neighbour’s trauma taking place at full volume, but this photo, brought to icky life on my mobile, would be a show-stopper for them. They crowded around the phone, each taking turns to point out a sickly looking, cream coloured germ, enlarging each part of the photo to take it all in. Then they looked at their own hands in horror. I asked when they last washed their hands. They didn’t know. They don’t understand how important handwashing is, especially in the kind of environment they live in, nor is it taught to them by their parents. Has it worked to scare them into washing their hands….A few of them (Ok, mostly the girls) talk about it all the time now, and remind their friends to wash if they sneeze. They ask to see the photo again and again and then tell on their siblings who didn’t wash after the toilet. Will this photo on my mobile save one of them from a doctor’s visit or worse, who knows, but they can’t stop talking about it, and that’s a good thing.

Examining their own hands after viewing the photo on the phone.

The best application on my phone is the photo library containing thousands of photos of the community dating back to 2013. Using Google face recognition technology, the children click on their face to access hundreds of photos of themselves. Noorsaba, who we’ve known since 2009, can scroll through over 1100 photos of herself and her family. When we visit families we’ve known for years, I hand them my phone loaded with photos of the minutiae of their lives, from births to hospital visits, portraits, celebrations, home life, and the community at large. The passage of time for many people who live in the slum is a time forgotten, until they are reminded by the photos, many taken years ago, of the significant, and often what they think were insignificant moments in their lives, and the lives of their children. They pause on the photos, enlarge the image, and sometimes laugh, sometimes tear up, and they often ask for prints. The parents see their children as babies, smile at photos of their younger selves, and with sadness, pour over photos of their previous homes, now demolished and loved ones who've died. The photos bear witness to the community in all its stages of growth and demolition, and brings to life the faces of old friends and neighbours who’ve moved on to other communities.

Many families in the community have an inexpensive, shared, smart phone with limited data, thanks to Jio, the newest low-priced entrant to the Indian smartphone market. They use their phone to make calls, and they take photos, usually a grainy, dull image expected from an inexpensive device. While the rise of cheap smartphones have changed the way families in slum communities communicate with each other, they must use their data sparingly, and often have no data to use until they can save enough rupees to pay for more. We’re happy to share our unlimited data when Shivani simply must have an answer, to share thousands of photos taken over the years with hundreds of families, and to be excited when the children are inspired by a YouTube tutorial. Smartphone technology brings the bigger world to slum communities, people whose lives are lived in confined spaces without the means to explore otherwise. It’s the smartest thing ever.

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