When I was young I never realized that having a helper around the house was a privilege, I noticed that all middle/ upper class families in Mumbai have a “Bai” – a Marathi word that translates into “woman” but colloquially means a maid. Our bai spends an hour everyday cleaning dishes and sweeping our house clean. The Indian households relationship with the bai is a complicated one(1). Its exploitative, feudal, yet unexpectedly personal . Our bai is the only “outsider” that regularly enters our domestic space and brings her personal stories along. Every now and then it makes space for an awkward encounter that forces me to think of life on her side of town. Lately these encounters have been centered around my computer.
Of all the objects that have intrigued her in my house, my laptop has alienated her the most. Every time I work on my computer Nanda Bai leaves her work to come and peer over my shoulder and makes me very conscious of her presence. She finds me writing emails, watching films, drawing and each time makes it a point to ask me what I am doing and is often irritated with my answers. She hates the fact that all the work on my computer is in English (although I have tried to explain that this is not entirely true), she hates that it costs so much to buy a computer and one can use it only to communicate with others who have computers. She hates that this “internet” that is transporting my messages is an additional cost, over and above the cost of the computer and she has recently resorted to the thought that unlike other electrical appliances my house, she shall probably never operate the computer in this life time.
For her the computer simply belongs to another space splintered from her reality. As Graham and Marvin describe it, this splintered space is selective and allows people to secede into an urban realm that is not accessible to all. It’s a land of cyborgs(2), where citizens participate in an urbanism mediated by technology that cuts barriers of space and time. It lacks material and gives quick and convenient access to knowledge and networks. On the other hand Nanda Bai lives in a space that depends deeply on materials, documents and physical networks with people. She spends a significant amount of her life waiting in lines to pay bills and access the banks and has no access to vast knowledge and entertainment that the internet can provide.This disconnect often plays out in my house.
In the meanwhile, to save on material costs and time, the State and other agencies have begun transferring their activities to the cyber space. For example, the State has begun announcing all board exam results on the internet. The admission process for colleges has also been transferred online and although education institutes do make provisions to help those who don’t have internet access these changes beg the question are we doing enough to allow the poor to participate in this cyber sphere?
Nanda Bai’s 4 daughters have received education till the 10th grade. Out of these only one has completed a basic course in Microsoft Office. This course cost her Rs.5000 which Nanada described as pinch on her budget. However she has not managed to buy her daughter a computer and is afraid this is going to affect her skills and job prospects. Unlike the West, India does not have a well-developed library system that allows free access to the computer and internet facilities. The void has been partially filled by the market. Cybercafes provide internet access for Rs. 20 per hour. But these are few in number and often packed with people. Second hand or repaired computers can be bought cheap, however access to internet remains a problem as internet rates in Mumbai are high and the quality is very poor.
If India wants to reap the benefits of its demographic dividend and be competitive at a local and global scale the State must step in to provide cyber access to the poor. Free internet should be seen as a right that allows one to access other rights. The kind of city Mumbai becomes shall largely depend on the access its poor have to basic services and the cyber space.
 This blogpost is too short to dwell upon the Indian Household’s relationship to servitude but Raka Ray and Seemin Qayum’s book “Cultures of Servitude” provides a through analysis of this.
 Cyborg – The term cyborg is often applied to an organism that has restored function or enhanced abilities due to the integration of some artificial component or technology that relies on some sort of feedback. Also see Donna Harraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto” and Mathew Gandy’s “Cyborg Urbanism”.