It is a long ride from the airport. The urban clutter and concrete begin to give way to frequent trees and occasional teashop isles.
Conversation keeps us both awake. He is happy to talk about his family (“my daughter will finish high school this year”) and point to some landmarks on the way (“this is where I used to work before I became a driver”).
Then we reach a road that is particularly scenic. Trees on both sides and vast green fields beyond. No other vehicle in sight. Beautiful! Peaceful!
I suggest, “Let us stop here for some time.” There is no response. He seems preoccupied, a little worried even. I suspect he has even speeded up a bit.
Soon, we are at the hotel. I invite him to join me for lunch. Reluctantly he does.
As we eat, he explains. “From where you come, that road must have looked beautiful. Here, such roads can be dangerous. Suddenly, five or six people would emerge from the tall grass or from behind a tree. That would have been the end of both of us. It is so common here. Nobody can do anything.”
That explanation brings me back to reality. I am not here for sightseeing. I had insisted on meeting some of the beneficiaries of my client before penning a script for them. They had developed an app to help the poor (underprivileged in corporate-speak) invest and borrow.
The driver is grateful for the lunch and the small tip. “I will buy something to take home. And don’t worry, I won’t be taking that road when I return.”
No, he has not heard of that app. He thinks it is a joke. How can his mobile become his bank?
Meet the market
A local representative of the client arrives later. He takes me to a village that can be accessed only on foot.
Alarmed by the warm welcome accorded to “the one who has come from the city”, I request the representative to please not bother with the introductions. I am here just to watch you at work. I am not a special guest. Please ignore me.
The meeting is about to start. Several women arrive, some of them carrying children. Most have their head and face covered. The men are at work or simply prefer to leave unproductive tasks like banking and technology to the women, so I would learn later.
I try to blend into the background. Not easy when you are the only one sitting on a chair. (Someone had procured it after seeing me struggle to fold my noncompliant legs, while bravely trying to sit on the floor, like the rest of them.)
A dog comes close enough to confirm this stranger is harmless. The cows and buffaloes on either side can’t care less.
The meeting progresses. Gradually I become friends with the accent. I notice something strange. The participants are all looking at me as they talk. Sitting right in front of them are two company people whom they already know well. They are here with mobiles and registers to ensure everything is in order. And the customers are looking at me, why?
Soon the answer is clear. I am the only one who is meeting their eyes and nodding sympathetically (“my son just wouldn’t go to school; we will need another loan soon; we took it all the way to the market but did not get a good price for our harvest”). The company guys are just too focused on their mobile screens, struggling with the poor mobile coverage in the area, ensuring their app captures all information right. They simply cannot afford to look up, meet eyes and chat.
Conversations with customers
Meeting over, we are in the car again, headed to the next location. We stop at a small teashop on the way. Everyone seems to know my companions. But some of them also appear to be wary of the two.
“Many of them were swindled in the past and lost a lot of money. After that they don't easily trust banks. And definitely not a bank inside a mobile,” my friend whispers a quick explanation.
The owner of the teashop is not laughing. He had kept the previous week’s earnings in a bag in the shop. Last night, a rat had chewed through the bag and some of the money.
“I keep telling you, open a bank account and deposit the money there,” advises my friend.
“And lose all of it?” the shopkeeper replies curtly. Obviously, he is not likely to be a client ever.
I am again at the receiving end of questions and comments after the meeting concludes at the next location.
“Some woman from their company talks to me on the phone. I don’t understand her. She does not understand me. Is she for real? Someone told me she is a machine. Is it safe to talk to a machine about my money?”
“Last time we trusted a mobile scheme, we lost all our money. Now, I don’t give my thumb print to anyone.”
“They keep advising us to save. How can we when we don’t have any money? The little money we have we use to repay the last loan. Then we take a fresh loan.”
“For these women, it is easier to take a loan. They try to save, their husbands come, beat them up and take away all the money. At least the money is safer inside the mobile.”
Back to urban tech
I am back the client’s office in the city. They are gearing up for a twin celebration. They have got a fresh round of funding, a few more millions. During the party, they also plan to unveil their new user interface.
I am taken on a tour of the sprawling office. My guide spends extra time at the tech section where all the programmers sit. As they tell me about the finer aspects of the cutting-edge software, I realize there is a lot that I need to learn.
What defines success in their domain? How do they manage to tame fickle technology so that they can prosper by supposedly helping someone managing the cows far, far away also prosper?
As we go to the next section, I cannot help wishing that some of those tech wizards most of whom had not bothered to look up from their monitors during the hour I was there, would abandon their machines and go. Go to some of the villages they are working hard to transform, to enrich.
Go there. Just be there, watch and listen. Understand their simple code of life. Then get back to your complex coding to help everyone.