Low End Theory: Land of Contrasts, and of Calculators


By Brendan I. Koerner

Were it not for the magic of ultra-aggressive bargaining, there would be no such thing as low-end electronics in India—at least not for pale-faced tourists such as your humble narrator. I came to this not-so-brilliant conclusion within 24 hours of landing in Delhi, when I decided to spend a recovery day perusing the city's chaotic bazaars. The first gadgets' hawker I engaged in broken-English conversation asked ungodly sums for his dreck—hundreds, if not thousands, of rupees for flimsy calculators, faux Discmen, and even plug adapters. Had I underestimated the breadth of the Indian economic miracle, the weakness of the dollar, or both?

Ah, but then I turned to depart, and the prices instantly tumbled. An Orpat calculator (right), initially a ridiculous 700 rupees, tumbled to 500, then 300, then, "My friend, how much you pay?" And I finally started to remember that fixed prices are perhaps a very Western phenomenon; the art of negotiation lives on the Subcontinent, and God(s) bless 'em for it.

Also alive and well in India: low-end brands you can't get on 125th Street (yet), guerrilla consumer tactics, Sansui, and, at least in the area where I spent most of my time, dodgy street protests. Jet-lagged observations after the jump.

Calculators, Calculators Everywhere For a country with pretty high mobile phone penetration, I was a bit perplexed by the abundance of cheap calculators on offer. Seriously, every peddler from Delhi to Dibrugarh sold calculators alongside their standard assortment of bottled water, batteries, and betel nuts. The indigenous Orpat competes with models from Citizen—yes, apparently the same Citizen that makes those snazzy Eco-Drive watches. ("Fun" fact: The Citizen "calculator sales office" is in Hamburg, Germany.) Do Indians really need palm-sized calculators in addition to their cellphone calcs? Or am I exhibiting exactly the sort of American ignorance that is dooming our poor country to also-ran status in the global engineering sweepstakes?

Congli By far my favorite low-end brand discovery, if only because it sounds an awful like the name of the villain in Bloodsport. Disappointed to learn that it's not Indian, but rather another Guangdonger that seems to have better market penetration in South Asia than in the U.S. Saw a lot of their Walkmen knock-offs in Assam; gotta love the external speakers, so everyone on the block can bob their heads to a little "Dhadak Dhadak" while strolling through Guwahati. Bonus reason to love Congli: fantastic Engrish on their site, including this unforgettable line—"Also make sure more stability of huada forward steps and more sunshine of future development in a deeper level."

Sansui Who knew this brand was flourishing? In Itanagar, capital of the province of Arunachal Pradesh, I was essentially unable to locate a TV from any other brand. (Okay, okay, there were a few cheap Samsungs, but lemme have this one for dramatic effect.) The awesomely named SY-14 Supereye was spotted several times, with prices quoted to me in the 4,000 rupee range. I guess you can chop that in half if you're Indian and/or can speak Assamese.

Nokia=Good! Part of my travels took me to a coal field near the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border. It was totally like traveling back in time—they transported materials via canoes and coal-powered trains, and there didn't seem to be much in the way of neither electricity nor health regulations. But, lo and behold, the miners' kiosk was selling Nokia 6600 handset with pre-loaded minutes. I was rushed out of there before I could find out the price, but given the economic circumstances of the place, I'm willing to bet the kiosk was selling the 6600 for a lot less than its initial $600-plus price from 2003.

Nokia=Bad! Alas, I got the feeling that Nokia may be able to offer such cut-rate handsets by offering cut-rate quality—dumping remaindered phones on Third World markets, perhaps? All over Dibrugarh, the tea capital of Assam, there were fliers glued to shacks begging passers-by to refrain from buying Nokia products. "Nokia service is terrible!" the fliers declare. "Their call centre is understaffed!" The signs made me wonder—when your business is in India and you're trying to save money on customer service, where do you outsource your call-center jobs to? My guess is Nepal.

Low End Theory: Land of Contrasts, and of Calculators

Miscellaneous Good to know that, if you're a member of the worldwide brotherhood of geeks, you can always find a pal at the local cybercafe. Almost went insane from social isolation before meeting some kindly eggheads in both Dibrugarh and Digboi, who provided me with chai and vigorous, English-language debate over the merits of Windows XP. (Alas, my Hindi vocabulary consists of just four phrases; my Assamese is even worse.) Kudos, too, to Air Deccan, which ferried me to/from Kolkata for about $50. On time, to boot.

Memo to the Assamese Police, or Whoever Is in Charge of Law and Order I realize that you're sick of people griping about your province's relative backwardness. You know what you could do to counteract such perceptions? The next time hundreds of drunken, balaclava-wearing youths decided to roadblock a major provincial highway for several days straight, do something about it. Thanks—much appreciated.

LASTLY: Apologies if you sent in an e-mail after November 14th and didn't hear back. I returned to find my inbox awash in pleas from Mobutu Sese Seko's lost daughter, several Shenzhen-based purveyors of cheap USB memory, and every manufacturer of fake Xanax on the entire frickin' planet. Was pretty aggressive with the delete key, so may have lost your missive. If it was important, please resend, and please don't hate.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for both The New York Times and Slate. His Low End Theory column appears every Thursday on Gizmodo.

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