India Connected is packed with likeable and upbeat characters. These include the heroic ‘internet saathi’ Phoolwati, who cycles around Rajasthani villages preaching the internet’s usefulness (‘we finally have some straws to clutch on to,’ she tells the author). There’s Abdul Wahid, a slightly bonkers but inspiring educationalist running a successful tutoring business near Jaipur. What unites most of the book’s characters is digital optimism. Millions of people, reckons Agrawal, feel ‘unbound by their fates, by their castes, families, and traditions’. After months of negative tech bashing, it’s refreshing to be reminded of the internet’s positives – like how valuable voice technology is in a country where only 66 per cent of women are literate.
What makes this book so hard to put down is the way Agrawal skilfully weaves together the tales of ordinary Indian lives being transformed by digital technology. For many the smartphone will be their first computer, TV, music player, camera and the means to enjoy a new freedom... Perhaps, most importantly, it finally cuts out the “middleman”, for generations a corrupt mainstay of doing almost anything in India.
Agrawal tackles each of his chosen subjects with a reporter’s tenacity and a newshound’s nose. This is both a strength and a weakness. On the plus side, it brings a vitality to his tale as well as a series of strong human-interest threads. So we meet Phoolwati, for instance, a young woman in rural Rajasthan who cycles from village to village evangelising to her sisterhood about the wonders of Google. And Shafiq, a teenager from Srinigar, who invented his own social media platform, “Kashbook”, when the government restricted access to Facebook. And Simran, who met her husband on a dating app after her parents’ efforts at an arranged marriage failed.