TARADAND, India — Babulal Singh Neti was sitting with his uncle on a recent afternoon, trying to persuade him of the merits of the internet.
It was 105 degrees outside, and the sun was beating down on the frazzled croplands. His uncle said he had no use for the internet, since he had never learned to read; furthermore, he wanted to nap. This he made clear by periodically screwing up his face into a huge yawn.
Mr. Neti, 38, pressed on earnestly, suggesting that he could demonstrate the internet’s potential by Googling the history of the Gond tribe, to which they both belonged. Since acquiring a smartphone, Mr. Neti couldn’t stop Googling things: the gods, Hindu and tribal; the relative merits of the Yadav caste and the Gonds; the real story of how the earth was made.
Access to this knowledge so elated him that he decided to give up farming for good, taking a job with a nongovernmental organization whose goals include helping villagers produce and call up online content in their native languages. When he encountered internet skeptics, he tried to impress them by looking up something they really cared about — like Gond history.
His uncle responded with half-closed eyes, delivering a brief but comprehensive oral history of the Gond kings, with the clear implication that his nephew was a bit of a good-for-nothing. “What does it mean, Google?” his uncle said. “Is it a bird?”
And then, theatrically, he yawned.
While India produces some of the world’s best coders and computer engineers, vast multitudes of its people are like Mr. Neti’s neighbors, entering the virtual world with little sense of what lies within it, or how it could be of use to them.
The arrival of the internet in their lives is one of India’s most hopeful narratives.
In the 70 years since independence, India’s government has done very little to connect Taradand, in Madhya Pradesh State, in central India, to the outside world: The first paved road appeared in 2006. There has never been a single telephone landline. Electricity is available to only half the houses. When Mr. Neti was growing up, if someone in the village needed emergency medical care, farmers tied the patient to a wooden cot and carried him five miles through the forest to the nearest hospital, a journey of four hours.
By comparison, India’s battling telecoms have wired Taradand with breathtaking speed. Two years ago, Mr. Neti counted 1,000 mobile phones in the village, which has a population of 2,500. This tracks with India as a whole; last year it surpassed the United States to become the world’s second-largest market for mobile phones behind only China, according to Groupe Speciale Mobile Association, an industry group known as G.S.M.A.
With the cost of both smartphones and data plummeting, it is fair to assume that Taradand’s next technological leap will be onto the internet.
Those who work in development tend to speak of this moment as a civilizational breakthrough, of particular significance in a country aching to educate its children. India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, has made expanding internet use a central goal, shifting government services onto digital platforms. When Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, toured India in 2014, he told audiences that for every 10 people who get online, “one person gets lifted out of poverty and one new job gets created.”
So it is instructive to follow Mr. Neti as he tries to drum up a little interest in Taradand. Young men use the internet here, but only young men, and almost exclusively to circulate Bollywood films. Older people view it as a conduit for pornography and other wastes of time.
Women are not allowed access even to simple mobile phones, for fear they will engage in illicit relationships; the internet is out of the question. Illiterate people — almost everyone over 40 — dismiss the internet as not intended for them.
Still, Mr. Neti persists with the zeal of the newly converted.
“You can call me the black sheep. That’s what I am,” he said cheerfully. “I don’t care. It’s the internet age. One day they’ll all come around.”
When he bought his first mobile phone, in 2001, he was so nervous he did not make a call for nearly a week. When he finally did, he blurted out: “Friend, I have bought this mobile. Is this your number and your name? I am Babulal!” The next day his phone stopped working and he returned to the shop, telling the salesman that something was wrong with the phone.
“I had no idea what to do,” Mr. Neti said. “He said, ‘Your balance is over.’”
But this experience in no way prepared Mr. Neti for his first encounter with the smartphone, which he spotted about a decade ago in the hand of a computer operator in Taradand’s local administration building.
The official was an agreeable sort, and Mr. Neti began borrowing his phone for two- and three-hour stretches. He went on Google, searching for the word “Gondwana,” the name for the Gond tribe’s traditional land.
“It was as if I had opened up history, the history of Gondwana,” he said. “It seemed fascinating. You didn’t have to buy a book. The earth map came up as round, and part of it was Gondwana. Ireland, Gondwanaland, Switzerland. I was fascinated. No sooner would I see a mobile than I would run over.”
Only after some time, he recalled, did Mr. Neti realize it was possible to search for terms other than Gondwana.
“It seemed,” he said, “as if I was diving into a sea with no bottom to it.”
This marked the beginning for Mr. Neti of a wide-ranging inquiry about the world surrounding him. He was interested, for example, in knowing whether the residents of other countries worshiped Ram, the Hindu deity and, upon discovering that they did not, hastened to inform his neighbors of this startling news. He decided to fact-check the assertion of a childhood friend, who is from the Yadav caste, that the Yadavs had been present at the creation of the earth and learned this was not a universally accepted view.
“I told him I wasn’t personally saying anything about the Yadavs, it was Google saying something negative,” Mr. Neti said. “He was very offended.”
At some point, Mr. Neti discovered that he had become skeptical of nearly everything he had been taught. “I tried to find out if the gods created the earth,” he said. “I found out it was not true. But still I cannot answer the question of who created the earth. But I believe Google contains the answer.”
Mr. Neti finds it maddening that, in a region whose farmers are desperate to educate their children, his neighbors still regard the internet principally as a way to watch movies.
“The villagers do not yet understand,” he said “They don’t know that the whole world rests inside the mobile. The day people realize that, they will stop going out to study.”
If Mr. Neti’s audience was tougher than usual, there was a reason: A 15-year-old girl from Taradand had just eloped with a 17-year-old boy from a different caste, and everyone was blaming technology. There was no evidence the young couple planned their getaway on the phone, but everyone assumed it.
“Ninety-nine percent of mobile users misuse them,” said Devender Kumar Patel, 17, whose hair had been coaxed into a four-inch ducktail. “Rapes are an outcome of these things. One of my cousins received a call on a mobile phone, was asked to go someplace and was murdered.”
The internet, Mr. Patel felt, is worse: a labyrinth of shallow diversion where many young people in the village would lose their way. “Those who use it badly will go farther down from where they are,” he said.
“They are seeing what they should not be seeing,” he said.
This was also the opinion of Mr. Neti’s father, Kuware Singh, who returned from the fields to the family compound naked to his waist. Totally illiterate, he remains wary even of the basic cellphone; he will speak on it only if someone holds it up to his ear. He said he was unsure how he felt about all the time his son spent on the internet.
“It depends,” Mr. Singh said. “Will it help him get a job?”
Mr. Neti does spend a lot of time online. Walking around the village, he stops periodically to take selfies and post them on Facebook, and he scrolls through his feeds compulsively. He likes to describe his smartphone as his “best friend,” or his “guru.”
None of this makes much sense to his neighbors. A friend from childhood, Markandeya Yadav, said it was difficult for him to keep up with Mr. Neti’s internet discoveries.
“I am a simple man,” Mr. Yadav said. “He has changed, but I have not.”
The worst damage has been to Mr. Neti’s relationship with his wife, Sitabai, who comes from a far more remote village and is completely illiterate. She had taken to scrolling through images on her husband’s phone and, coming across a woman’s photograph, began calling numbers at random. She reached a senior district bureaucrat whose contacts he had programmed into the phone, and Mr. Neti had to beg the official’s forgiveness. After hanging up, he slapped her “four or five times,” he said.
“My wife’s mentality is such that she lives in yesteryear,” he said. “She will not tread my path. And if I tread her path, I will be left miles behind.”
This view is typical of India: Men are 36 percent more likely to use a bare-bones mobile phone than are Indian women. (The gap in China is 1 percent.) Where the internet is concerned, the gap between male and female use is even greater, at 62 percent.
Mr. Neti said he had made little effort to explain the internet to Sitabai.
“She doesn’t have the mental capability,” he said. “How would you explain a mobile to a dog?”
At moments of discouragement, Mr. Neti recalls that Taradand has already accepted a new technology. Fifteen years ago, when people began using mobile phones, his neighbors were elated. They were more efficient in everything they did.
It was no longer necessary to make long overland journeys to inform relatives of family news. Before going to market, farmers could call around to compare wholesale prices for vegetables. Migrant laborers could find out where the contractors were paying 400 rupees a day, or around $7.50, instead of the usual 150.
Even Mr. Neti’s uncle, Siya Ram Singh Gond, shook his head gravely at the thought of how long they had lived without these tools. “So much time was wasted,” he said.
Once in a while, Mr. Neti feels he is close to a similar breakthrough with the internet. An example came recently when his father mentioned visiting a district records office to check the boundary of his land. Mr. Neti used Google for a few minutes and then held up his smartphone in front of his father. His father peered at the property lines that Mr. Neti was showing him, accessible on the district administration website, and approved.
“The boundaries were there,” he said. “It was all correct.”
Within hours, he had performed the same service for a dozen other men from neighboring farms.
“It was a very happy moment for me,” Mr. Neti said. “My father also realized this was no ordinary instrument.”