Saal Ka Mela -- ubimunchkins

Khare (
Fri, 19 Dec 1997 18:13:55 +0530

Today, one of my nieces was in the Welcome Dance (Swagat) at St. Mary's
Convent School (est. 1932) Annual Function. Schools are a big deal here in
Varanasi -- from typing and astrology to Visual C++ and the venerable
Banaras Hindu University (est. 1916) of dozens of my relatives on both
sides. The big deal, though, is the spate of English-language, usually
Christian-origin 'public' (read: private, a l'Anglais) schools. Any
afternoon, the streets are filled with uniformed boys and girls off to one
school or another.

Well, make that upper-class boys and girls. It's obviously a tough thing to
even conceive of universal education; Uttar Pradesh, the most populous
state, has a literacy rate well below half -- about 35% I think. [overall,
only 1/3 of Indians born in 1930 are literate, but 80% of the 1970 cohort].

So anyway, here on the quad were about several hundred kids and several
hundred more gleaming parents in full finery, about 3% with cellphones (the
latest units are here in the hinterland, for better prices than in LA!).

After the one traditional ensemble welcome song aforementioned, the series
actually consisted of a set of group exercises for kids 6-10 capped by an
upper-class band performance. Some of the musical selections included an
N-th generation-removed bubblegum synth rendition of Wham!'s Wake Me Up,
and a startling second-grade boys-and-girls dance of Aqua's Barbie Girl.
No, I don't think anyone else understood the lyrics either :-)

The kids were all filing off to makeshift bleachers, and about halfway
through in an apparent repeat of last year's debacle, they collapsed.

No one was hurt, mind you, but the usual chaos ensued. Indians are just
about the total opposite of Japanese -- public civility being one of the
the first casualties. First, the band played on -- no one was about to stop
the show for a melee of rushing dads (and now you know the derivation of
melee from Mela -- Hindi for 'fair'). No one believed the P.A. about the
lack of injuries.

Anyway, the real point of this litte tale was to reflect on middle-class
Varanasi. Clearly, there were a few quite well-to-do folks, but its not the
big city either. And amongst all the preparations and tents and VIPs, a
couple street urchins wandered into the audience. All of a sudden, I was
reminded that as critical as I was in trying to separate out the 3%
attending this event, the entire aseemblage was in the 3% of the whole.
What could I possibly do to help this little girl about the age of my
niece-- a Dickensian little moment.

In fact, I can't do much, and you have to let go of that Strutherish
impulse. All of Bill Gates' wealth -- though alone, larger than any
industrial empire in India -- is only $30 per Indian. The entire market
value of GE is about 70% of the average annual income of all Indians
together ($230B into ~1B making $350-$400/yr). No Soros can intervene -- an
entire fortune could barely rehabilitate this one, 5,000-year old city. All
those British works left behind, from the military garrison to the Banaras
Light Company, the Waterworks (my grandfather's first job), or the
long-abandoned Roller Skating Rink have not been equaled in the 50 years

And besides, who should possibly be in the position of doing charity to
India. India can now feed itself -- nay, it's a net food exporter. The
cover of India Today is a 29-year old millionaire with his Bently and
Interchangable Babe who made his fortune selling Indian computers to the
Russians. There is energy here -- how to harness it?

Dictatorship? Singapore? Japan's one-party system? luckily not -- but how
ARE things to proceed? We may have the rule of law, but somehow it seems
you can do anything in China overnight.

There will be no sea change in India's fortunes. It has no oil wealth, no
infusion of capital to leapfrog with. When the age of nanotech arrives,
well, then if we are enlightened enough to share the technology, India and
the whole world will finally be saved. Merely the ability to synthesize
diamond layers alone should be able to redefine civil engineering to
provide shelter, water, and power.

In the meantime, no gora (white) need be obligated -- but what should *I*
do? I mean, my vision is munchkins, right? What in Sam Hill is a damn
cellphone going to do for this ragpicker? I hope the day will come that a
munchkin will be disposable enough (<$5) and successful enough that I can
fantasize about bequeathing the nation a ubiquitous high-bandwidth net:
issuing every household a free munchkin.

The catch is, even if the poorest among us have no call for bandwidth of
their own, they can still make some points relaying other's packets. Those
traffic jams and slums are really massive transmission backbones :-)

But.. but.. my dream must mean that I have some deep hope that
communications alone -- connecting people into an interdependent mesh --
can change spirits, mindsets, economies. I believe there IS some need to
bring every last person online. With a pencil-sized, voice-operated
munchphone on everyone's wrist, there can be freedom from fear -- safety in
the night in the surveillance society, I suppose. There can be freedom of
movement, to break out of the village cycle. Most of all, I suppose it
could explode the extended family, which is such a creation of the fear of

It's not a socially neutral thought -- releasing the genie of ubiquitous
communications could be as profoundly wrenching as the A-bomb in
triggering social change.

Anyway, this all one big copout to the deployment problem. One munchkin is
an island. Two are a link. A billion is a weapon in the competitive
struggle of nations. If I could just siphon off enough cash from the
American market... :-)


PS. Wired 6.01, from George Gilder:
"The most common PC of the next decade will be a digital cellular phone,
tied to the net and based on a single chip with integrated analog and
digital circuitry. As powerful as a supercomputer of old, it will be as
mobile as your watch and as personal as your wallet. It will ink to a
variety of displays vis a quantum cascade lared emitting infrared

Notes: ever used an IR nightvision goggle in the middle of a tradeshow
floor for IR comm devices? It's like Vegas! And speaking of "talking to
displays", that damn well isn't a raster protocol, or even X, but an
HTTPNG/XML-forms service. Inunrelated news, Don Norman has his new thinking
on displays in appliances in a new forthcoming book, Information