The ‘virtual’ confronts the ‘real’

Internet is a young albeit furiously expanding medium and given the notoriously qualmish and unenterprising relationship Hindi as a language has had with technology in general and mass media in particular, it is not surprising that it is mainly the youth in their twenties and thirties who have taken to the still younger practice of blogging in a big way. Although the Hindi blogsphere running into something like 500 today is reminiscent of the early formative years of the language itself – chronologically coinciding with the differential construction of public power of languages, which in turn was in part determined by how forthcoming they were in executing the switchover from the oral or written mode to the print – the similarity between the two eras and two technologies ends pretty much here.

Hindi might still give the impression of being an embattled language, a language that lived by the art of definining its others quite sharply, but it is so more out of habit now. For, the fact remains that it has managed to erase its arch-rival Urdu, has almost devoured ‘its’ dialects and has pretty much come to peace with the status of English as the post-colonial global superpower language of this country. Hindiwallahs feel let down by the State, but they loathed Commerce as much. Ironically, it is the content-hungry and numbers-driven media bazar, in the form of print since the early nineteenth century, and films from the 30s onwards and then radio and later television, especially in the post-liberalisation age, that has given it its unassailable contemporary status as potentially one of the biggest languages in the world. But there is a parallel world that lives on the edge of this media market; its a fragile unstable world of little magazines where high death figures are quickly corrected by an equal number of rebirths. So this world of laghu patrikas carries on with its missionary zeal and self-proclaimed janpakshdhar attitude – almost all literary and nearly everyone political at the same time.

So the new mass media called Internet comes to Hindi in this context of production, circulation and meaning-making. If we compare those who created websites since the late 90s, and the ones who are blogging now, with those who are contented with the print public domain, a kind of generation-split is obvious. However, the blogs come at a time when some of the leading print journals and all the important newspapers had made themeseleves available on the web. And content making and management itself has changed profoundly – there were a few discussion lists and newsgroups already going steady when wikipedia gave content making a whole new definition. Nurtured by and wallowing in a sense and ‘politics of lack’ by the generations that glorified Hindi as the language of eternal struggle, the youth are still having a tough time trying to convince the wider public that Internet is worth going after, that it is not elitist, that embracing it does not amount to eating cake while the hungry millions go without bread. This is literally how the debate went recently when Manisha Kulshreshtha, one of the pioneers who set up a once very popular webportal Hindinest, started writing in praise of the net in her column in Naya Gyanoday. A familiar name in the socialist circles and the editor of Shesh, Hasan Jamal charged her with elitism and actually likened her ideas to Mary Antionette’s infamous suggestion to the peasants on the eve of French Revolution. This would have gone unnoticed a couple of years ago. Perhaps Manisha might not have got the space she has in the print now. Not anymore. Jamal saheb got a taste of his own medicine when he got furious responses from the readers of the magazine and one of the respondents, Ravi Ratlami, yes sitting in Ratlam – another pioneer in the Indic Computing field who has tirelessly worked at translating the free software desktops and other tools in Hindi under the voluntary effort called Indlinux –  told Jamal to come out of his ‘frog’s well’ to see his own works reach farflung corners of the globe via Ravi’s freewheeling blogzine called Rachnakar. His Shesh may not be available in Chattisgarh for example, but his article on Rachnakar certainly is – just try typing your name in hindi on google, he added.

So it seems the young netters are now in a position to take on the old media, although there is a long road ahead. There is still a certain anxiety in some quarters about self-representation, of being left out if reported in print, of things getting too controversial if political debates are carried out on the Hindi blogsphere, as happenend recently when discussions on Hindu-Muslim issue became hot following radio jockey Irfan’s confessions. Avinash had to issue an apology because every self-styled ‘Hindu’ blogger worth their salt reminded him that he is an extremist and altercation-happy Hindu-bashing secular fellow. In all these protestations, the underlying philosophy seems to be to protect a new virtual public domain from the mundane extremities of identity-oriented narrow political debates in India. The makers of spaces like Narad, Sarvagya, Paricharcha, Hindini and others have invested much effort in providing the basic tools  and a kind of healthy initial content for Hindi blogging and they do not want anybody to ruin it. They do not want another partition, as one blogger said. Sounds familiar. Wonder what would they say to my Dalit friend saying: ‘While we still fight for the ground, the (virtual)space seems already taken!’

To sum up, the Hindi blogsphere at the moment looks like a vibrant, if a bit cautious space, and the bloggers are commenting on a range of things while they create the basic tools and fill up content. In the best of the libertarian traditions of the Internet, it has become a site of invention and innovation, of creating, discussing and sharing tools ranging from input methods and fonts to digital dictionaries and spellcheckers, and digitizing and uploading familiar and unfamiliar texts, film songs, etc. on geetayan,wikipedia, wikia and myriad other locales. Collectively, they can be credited with achieving what the various language and technology departments run by government of India have failed to do. And their language is refreshingly different from the sarkari Hindi – like the roadside mechanics, they have invented a whole new jargon to come to terms with a global technology and tech-inspired spaces that need to be locally tweaked. Toh aaiye chittha likhein, chtthakaar banein, kachcha chttha kholein, aur bedharak Tipiyaein.

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