Love in the time of texting

BANGALORE — Bangalore schoolgirl Nitisha Jaykumar's latest acquisition is a Nokia cell phone, which her protective parents gave her when she turned 16 a few months ago. But now, unbeknownst to them, she is on the verge of acquiring a not-so-common schoolgirl possession here — a boyfriend.

Making full use of the curtain of privacy that cell phone communication grants her, Nitisha is bold and flirtatious in her messages with male classmates. Lest her parents suspect her nightly preoccupation with romancing by text, she puts the phone on silent and suppresses the daytime yawns.

As cell phones become the coveted teenage possession in newly prosperous India, text messaging is the new-fangled route to romance for the country’s urban young, much to the disapproval and infuriation of older Indians.

“Cell phones have become the way to circumnavigate a variety of parental controls,” said Ashish Patil, a vice president with MTV India, which researches youth trends. With cell phones, communication is private and individual, he said. He quoted an Indian teenager as saying, “On the landline, mom would answer my calls. But boys can call now on the mobile phone, and we talk 'til late at night.”

In crowded, populous India — where dating is still taboo and public display of affection is a big no-no — the cell phone is extending the possibilities of romance for a whole cloistered generation. It is becoming a symbol of freedom from parental power and a rite of passage in urban India.

And it's changing the way new India approaches romantic relationships, from deepening friendships with the opposite sex to the exchange of sexually explicit messages.

Fifteen-year-old Meera Rajesh’s parents bought her a cell phone after much pleading and begging. They hoped that the gadget would be a safety device, as well as helping her to coordinate studies with her classmates.

Now, Rajesh’s cell phone blinks surreptitiously at all hours of the night with text messages. Ironically, this "safety device" helped her form a bond with a teenager of the opposite sex through conversations that her parents cannot check.

Parents who have caught on are blaming text messaging for promoting Western-style teenage romance and dating behavior in this still-conservative country, where parental controls are typically not relinquished until the children grow up and marry, and sometimes even longer.

With 400 million mobile phone users currently, and 10 million more added each month, India is the world’s fastest growing cell phone market. India's youth are helping to fuel the increase.

Cell phones offer a private, inexpensive means of networking for youth, said Raghunath Mandava, a chief marketing officer at the New Delhi-based Bharti Airtel, India’s largest cell phone service provider.

The texting phenomenon cuts across economic lines in a country where only a small fraction of the population has internet access, he said.

At rates as low as 0.10 rupee (a fraction of a cent) for a text message, down from 10 times that rate last year, young India is texting furiously. According to Bharti, which currently has 100 million users, 40 percent of its users send the bulk of text messages — more than 3 billion  every month.

Texting, Mandava said, is big among Indians “who are in situations where rightful privacy is also deprived,” as they live in crowded cities and cramped spaces.

Mobile phones are slowly seeping into everyday life in India. Billboards describe how easy it is to buy multiplex movie tickets by SMS or text messaging. Radio stations ask listeners to text in traffic hotspots. Banks urge Indians to use their cell phones to complete financial transactions.

So, it is only natural that teenagers like Jaykumar and Rajesh have quickly taken to cell phone romance and find themselves texting both their male and female friends in every spare moment.

While the debate in the West centers on whether technology is killing romance, in India technology seems to be encouraging romance, albeit furtively.

The scrolling bars on many satellite music channels airing Bollywood songs pulsate with teenage text missives. “R U Ok? I miss U” says one. “Last evening was un4gettable” says the next. A particularly telling one asks, “Shall we meet 2moro, same time? Home Alone.”

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