Richard Reeves

As the World Turns: Cell Phones Replace Letters

PARIS -- My mother, Dorothy Reeves, was a teller at the Trust Company of New Jersey, the big bank where Bergen Avenue ran into Journal Square in Jersey City. That was the reason when I first saw an automated teller machine, I vowed never to touch one, because they would inevitably throw tellers out of work.

It is a vow I have violated thousands of times. But what can you do? Progress is our most important product. The ATMs here connect to my account at North Fork Bank, the Long Island bank that recently bought the old Trust Company, and then was itself bought by Capital One in North Carolina. Like most everyone else, I also gave up the typewriter I loved, dial telephones, stick shifts, carbon paper, letters -- all the while feeling I was leaving a little of myself behind.

That is why I was drawn to a story in the International Herald Tribune last month about professional letter writers in Mumbai, India. The protagonist was a man named G.P. Sawant; the writer was Anand Giridharadas. (The story was later published in The New York Times as well.)

Mr. Sawant, since 1982, has worked in a stall near the doorway of the main post office of that great and teeming city in a largely illiterate part of the world. He was paid by rural people to write letters home to their villages about their lives in the big town, letters sent with money orders they were sending back to their families out in the country. The letters usually exaggerated the success of the poor folk dictating to Mr. Sawant. He does not charge prostitutes and tells their families that they are shop girls or working in show business.

His is a profession I knew well, not because I am a writer of other people's stories, but because in the same year Mr. Sawant set up shop, I used to go to the post offices in Islamabad and Peshawar in Pakistan to watch the letter writers practice their profession. The letters were told in Urdu or Pushtun, but sometimes the writers would tell me, in English, the stories of their clients. I felt like Kipling, who had done the same thing in those parts.

The business, alas, is dying. Why? Mobile phones.

You don't have to be literate to call home on a cell phone, just as you don't have to go into the Trust Company anymore to get at your money in Jersey City. According to the Trib, Mr. Sawant made just 12 cents one afternoon last month, filling out forms and addressing parcels for a few old customers.

So it goes, globalization and all that. Giridharadas writes:

"There is on one hand, a national quest under way to excise inefficiencies" -- my mother! -- "to cut out middlemen. As go the letter writers, so go the bank tellers as India adopts ATMs; phone booth operators as mobile phones spread; and rural money-lenders as new Western-style supermarket chains start trading directly with farmers.

"But for every occupation that vanishes, another is born. There are now mall attendants in a nation that until lately had no malls. McDonald's cashiers in a country where cows are sacred ... The country now has more software engineers and call-center operators than just about anywhere else."

But what about Mr. Sawant and his family? He sent all four of his children to private school in the years when his business was good. One son works in a bank; one daughter is a civil engineer in Denmark; another is still in college, studying computers. His third daughter, Suchitra, works for Infosys, the Indian telecommunications giant. She makes $9,000 a year, a lot of money in India, three times more than her father made in his best year.

Actually, Suchitra is making more than that right now. She is on temporary assignment at the company's American headquarters -- in Bridgewater, N.J. Her father calls her regularly on his mobile phone.

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