India's 'phone Romeos' look for the right one through wrong numbers

Satyavir Sachan, a member of the surveillance team that catches young men using cell phone calls to harass women, in Lucknow, Utter Pradesh, India.
Satyavir Sachan, a member of the surveillance team that catches young men using cell phone calls to harass women, in Lucknow, Utter Pradesh, India.PHOTO: NYTIMES

LUCKNOW, INDIA (NYTIMES) - In a glass-sided call centre, police constables clickety-clack on computer keyboards, on the trail of a particularly Indian sort of criminal.

The "phone Romeo", as he is known here, calls numbers at random until he hears a woman's voice, in the hope of striking up a romantic attachment.

Among them are overeager suitors ("Can I recharge your mobile?"), tremulous supplicants ("I am talking to you, madam, but my body is shaking") and the occasional heavy breather ("I want to do the illegal things with you").

Intentionally dialing wrong numbers is a labour-intensive way to find a girlfriend. But it is increasingly common in a range of countries - Morocco, Papua New Guinea, Bangladesh and India are examples - where traditional gender segregation has collided head-on with a wave of cheap new technology.

India is justly proud of its mobile phone revolution. Call tariffs are among the world's cheapest, and competition has sent the price of broadband plummeting. An estimated 680 million Indians use mobile phones now, with three million new ones coming online every month.

India's leaders promote mobile platforms as a sign of social progress, a better way to distribute subsidies and obtain information about healthcare and agricultural conditions.

An unintended consequence is that social barriers between men and women are collapsing. Reports of phone stalking have increased exponentially, leading to growing complaints of harassment.

But an unknown number of such calls are successful, resulting in what an American anthropologist has labelled "wrong-number relationships."

"It's a new thing," said Julia Q. Huang, a fellow in the anthropology department of the London School of Economics, who has written a scholarly paper on the practice among young women in Bangladesh. "It's covert, it's risky, it's experimenting with that outside world which they don't have much access to."

At the police call centre in Lucknow, in northern India, roughly 700 calls come in every day, mostly from women complaining of persistent calls from strange men.

The Hindustan Times recently reported that phone recharging outlets were selling the numbers of young women to interested men, charging 500 rupees (S$10.70) for a "beautiful" girl and 50 rupees for an "ordinary" one.

PHONE STALKER?

Recently, a complaint came from Geetika Chakravarty, 24, a makeup artist who grew up travelling the world with her father, a diplomat. After she returned to India from Canada last year, she posted her phone number in the contact section of a salon's Facebook page and received so many calls from unknown men that she blocked 200 separate numbers.

"I do not know what their mindset is," she said. "Sometimes they call and say 'I love you.' Sometimes they call and say 'I want to talk to Sonia,' and I would say, 'I am not Sonia,' and they would say, 'OK, can I talk to you?'"

But the most persistent among them was from a man who would call three or four times a day, urging her to meet him somewhere. When she blocked his number, he would call from another. She began to worry that he would track her down in person.

"He sounded like a creepy Indian guy to me," Chakravarty said.

When the police traced the number, the person they found at the end of it was Premsagar Tiwari, whose given name in Hindi translates as "Sea of Love." Tiwari, 24, turned out to be a high-strung, pencil-necked man who grew up in two small rooms in the corner of the down-at-heel government school where his father worked as a night watchman.

STRANGERS BECOME SOUL MATES

An inverse story was unfolding in Bangalore, where Umakanti Padhan, a moon-faced 16-year-old garment factory worker, tried to call her sister-in-law. She misdialled and found herself accidentally conversing with Bulu, a railway worker eight years her senior.

She hung up, alarmed. At home, beginning at puberty, she had been prohibited from speaking with any adult man, including her brothers and cousins.

Ten minutes later, Bulu called back and told her that he liked the sound of her voice. "When I hear your voice, it feels like someone of my own," he said. "I feel like talking to you all the time."

So she agreed. Every night, she slipped out to the roof of her Bangalore workers' hostel, where she shares a room with 11 other young women, and spoke to Bulu about mundane things: how their shifts went and what they had eaten that day.

"He's told me everything that ever happened to him from the time he was a kid," she said. "I don't know whether it is good or bad, but I trust him. I know he will not betray me."

TELEPHONE COURTSHIP

Huang, the anthropologist, said the women she met in Bangladesh were often happy to engage in telephone courtships with anonymous strangers, and some maintained five or six at once.

Phone contact, they told her, was safer because it presupposed physical distance. Also, it forced the men on the other end of the line to listen to them for long stretches.

"It's one of those boundary-expanding experiences that allow you to think about opportunities that were not previously available," she said.

Young women, she said, described these relationships with "kind of a fearful excitement." For the young men, she said, "dialing random numbers is like playing the lottery and seeing what comes up."

Often, she said, they approach it almost as a competitive sport, vying to see "who is more skilled at keeping a woman on the phone for a long time."

As for Padhan and her boyfriend, 11 months have passed and they still have not met in person. Her roommates roll their eyes at her naiveté.

But when their shifts are finished, they, too, retire to stairwells and corners of the rooftop for the covert nightly call.

From there, it is possible to look across the rooftops of other boardinghouses and see figures hunched over their cellphones, in all directions, a wide-angle shot of young India in pursuit of love.