Friday, December 21, 2007

Written Off

Scrivenering isn't what it used to be in India: the professional letter writer is confronting the fate of middlemen everywhere: to be cut out. In India, the fastest-growing market for mobile phones in the world, calling the village or sending a text message has all but supplanted the practice of dictating your intimacies to someone else.

And so [G.P.] Sawant, 61 years old and by his own guess the author of more than 10,000 of other people's letters, was sitting idly at his stall on a recent Monday, having earned just 12 cents from an afternoon spent filling out forms, submitting money orders, wrapping parcels - the postal trivialities that have survived the evaporation of his letter-writing trade.

But this is not the familiar story of the artisan flattened by the new economy, because, it turns out, his family has gained more from that economy than it has lost.

Sawant has three children riding the Indian economic boom, including a daughter, Suchitra, who works at Infosys, one of the preeminent Indian outsourcing firms. In the very years that a telecommunications revolution was squashing her father's business, it was plugging India into the global networks that would allow her industry to explode. Suchitra now earns $9,000 a year, three times as much as her father did at his peak.

Globalization is said to create winners and losers. In the Sawants, it created both. And that duality reflects the furious pace at which entire professions are being invented and entire professions destroyed in the rush to modernize India.

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