By Rama Bijapurkar, Author of "A Never Before World: Tracking the Evolution of Consumer India"
We are an affiliative, clannish, inquisitive, parochial society with each of us having multiple identities and belonging to several reference groups, always seeking out "people like us", like homing pigeons. WhatsApp makes all this easier and more efficient. The whole clan weighs in on wedding preparations, and festivals are celebrated and new babies monitored closely by many more family members scattered around the globe.
I know one grandparent in small-town India who watches the prized grandchild every day at her playschool in America. I have friends who belong to at least 10 different WhatsApp groups spanning their many identities which are getting even more complexly constructed then before. The multilingual keyboard with all its features, emojis, gifs and voice messaging is making language fluency less of a barrier, as we now transact socially with different combinations of speak/ read/ write/ understand, extending the catchment area of people we can converse with.
The other thing that continually surprises me is how much religious content we have created and put on the internet, making our famed religiosity even more entrenched and easier to access. Live feeds from a range of temples are de rigueur. You don't need to look for a priest — Google tells you how to conduct rituals and an enormous amount of ancient religious texts are now online, with multilingual translations and multimedia, multi-mode renditions. I often wonder who on earth managed to digitise all these archives and upload them.
Ditto for the amount of Indian classical music uploaded on it. There is no raga, no matter how rare, that you cannot find on the net; no musician from the good old days whose recordings you cannot listen to.
Land of Liberal & Illiberal Indians People sometimes think the internet is where the modern liberal Indian lives. But here's where every kind of illiberal Indian also lives as you can see from the trolling that happens. The internet is entirely compatible with most other things that are hard to explain. A Naadi astrologer (Google it) now says, "Scan your thumb and mail it and we will tell you if you have a chance of finding your details."
In addition to all this bewildering "back to the future", the most heartening forward movement is how it has managed to make lives so much better for so many lower income Indians.
Even if many can't do it on their own, there's a whole tribe of young digital middlemen who do it for you — facilitate medical treatment, help you avail of e-governance, etc. You now get cheap and plentiful movies and banking services at your doorstep, money directly into your account for welfare benefits, and access more status-blind service than ever before for things like booking a gas cylinder or a train ticket.
My favourite example of what the internet can do to Indians is to discipline them into accepting rules. I notice that if a human being tells you that you cannot have something because no slots are available or because you don't qualify, Indians will argue, bully and try and get their way. Switch to a computer and there's no scope for arguing with it, so may be the internet will eventually make us a rule-obeying society, after all!