Letter from Varanasi: New Technologies in India's Oldest City
With his white robe and wool cap, Brahmachari Vilas does not look exactly look like a typical database programmer. Nor does his workplace, a hospital compound established by the Ramakrishna order near the center of Varanasi, India's holiest city, even seem a likely place for computers. But in this-one of oldest cities on earth-appearances can deceive. In places, Varanasi seems like a pre-industrial community, where irons are heated with hot coals and grain is weighed out on balance scales, where the devout bathe before dawn in the frigid Ganges and the dead are cremated, more than 200 a day, in blazing pyres along the river's edge. But then I sip chai, India's sweet, spicy national drink, with this apprentice Hindu monk who has mastered Foxpro, sends email, and is contemplating the development of a website.
I met Vilas last December as part of a ten-day stay in Varanasi (also called Banaras, Benares, and Kashi)), which culminated a month-long trip through northern India. My guide and guru for this adventure was my friend Michael Mery, a five-time visitor to the country, a devoted student of India, who is convinced that, in the words of the George Harrison song, the farther one travels, the less one knows. In India, like Japan, the only constant truth for outsiders is that everything you "know" is at least partially wrong. (I freely admit here the folly of an American reporter trying to explain India to a Japanese readership.)
Ironically, I had met Michael himself several years ago while preparing an article for this publication on the then nascent World Wide Web. Michael was the first person I knew with a Web connection, having downloaded the Mosaic browser before Netscape made its mark. I arrived at his hand-built house in the small town of Point Reyes Station, which fronts a pasture of black and white Holstein cows, and he led me to his office, where he had bookmarked the website for the University of Tokyo. I still remember the stark contrast between the bucolic setting and the global reach of this new medium. And now, sitting in the mission, I was experiencing an even more pronounced disconnect. This was the kind of place where you'd expect records to be kept on parchment with a quill pen. Instead, the Ramakrishna order ran an accounting package on four computers, and the entire system had been developed in-house.
Much has been written about the prowess of Indian computer scientists. In the Silicon Valley, they are an obvious and formidable presence. You meet them at every technology company of any size, involved with both hardware and software, technology development and product marketing. Expatriate Indians make up a sizeable percentage of America's international workforce qualifying under a provision that permits people with sought-after skills to work in the United States. Some Indian technologists have risen to the top of the profession. Bell Laboratories, one of America's premiere research and development organizations, is now run by India-born Arun Netravali. Others have pursued the updated version of the American dream, launching companies and selling them for millions of dollars to bigger companies, as Hotmail cofounder Sabeer Bhatia did in selling his company to Microsoft. Exodus, perhaps the best known Internet hosting company, was founded by another Indian immigrant, K.
And much has also been written about Bangalore, the Indian city that has produced software developers the way Texas produces oil and cattle, attracting American corporate clients from Xerox to Reebok to AT&T, to its development services. But if Bangalore represents the cutting edge of Indian technology prowess, Varanasi is perhaps more typical of the country, a place better known as a religious center than for its industrial base or wealth. Students here may not be at the absolute forefront of the country's technology elite, but they provide a better gauge of where the country as a whole is headed.
For an American especially, India provides a kind of sanity check over the global impact of computing and the Internet. I come from a country in which more than 40 percent of households have a home computer, with many of them their own web connection. In India, home computers are still restricted to less than five percent of the population. That's not surprising considering it would take a middle class salary about three months just to pay for the hardware. The PC penetration figure is higher among businesses, of course, as is the number of Internet connections. But unlike in the U.
Among those organizations just testing the waters is Vilas's. In 1908, the Calcutta-based Rammakrishna order established a small hospital in Varanasi, a place where many Hindus come to die, and some, unfortunately, to be exploited. Widows, in particular, became victims of a parasitic faction who promised deliverance in the afterlife, but left them impoverished in the here and now. In the 1930s, with the help of the British government, the Ramakrishna Mission expanded to its present 13 acre compound, which now includes a 230-bed hospital dedicated to serving the poor, quarters for the monks and retired monks, a small meeting room, and even a working 65-head dairy. For us, the mission was a short ride by bicycle rickshaw, which in parts of Varanasi is the only public transportation that can negotiate the narrow streets. Drivers pedal down those streets, clanging bells at pedestrians while dodging the occasional automobile and ducking mustachioed cops carrying big sticks. The price: 5 rupees ($.12) for locals, negotiable to 10 rupees and up for visitors.
Vilas, a chartered accountant (the equivalent of a CPA, a certified public accountant, in the U.
With the accounting packages developed, Vilas has turned his attentions to the Internet. His latest project: locate a web resource for veterinarian medicine in order to keep the cows in good health. And further on, he is considering a website for the mission itself.
No chai served over the Web
In some ways, Vilas's aspirations are universal: people the world over view the Internet as a vast publishing medium. Which made me wonder whether the Web itself transcends culture. Once Indians are finally linked in large numbers to the Web, what will they do with it? The easy guess is that they will do what Web users of the world already do-look up information, waste time playing games, send personal email on company time, check out the online naked ladies, and, perhaps, buy merchandise.
And in talking to the locals, much of this hunch seems true. The possible exception, surprisingly enough, is e-commerce. Why wouldn't Indians embrace electronic shopping with the gusto of their American counterparts, who set a record for online purchases this last holiday season. The answer can be found in even the most modest shopping stall. In India, the line between a business and a social call is hopelessly blurred. That family buying produce or fabric, medicine or office supplies, may have done business with the same merchant for generations. You would no sooner plunk down cash and hurry out the door than you'd visit your uncle's house without sitting down to tea. Even the most distant visitor gets a sense of this. My purchase of earrings for my wife took over an hour, and included chai and conversation.
"Indians like to do two things when they shop," one man told us. "Touch the merchandise and talk." The man sat in an audience of a Varanasi hotel where Vilas and friends had organized an informal gathering to discuss India and the Internet. I had just finished delivering a lecture on how Americans use this technology, and now it was time for some two-way questions. "Would Indians give all that up for an impersonal e-commerce site?" asked Michael. "You can't drink chai over the Internet." Many heads shook, but not all. "I'd use the Internet if the price was lower," said one. "Or if you couldn't get the merchandise here in Varanasi." Someone asked about artificial intelligence and e-commerce. Could you use AI to simulate a personal experience online. "There's plenty of effort in that direction in America," I responded. "But so far, the results are not that promising. You can still tell that this is a dumb computer trying to act smart." Another man was concerned about "dangerous information" being posted on the Web, such as instructions for constructing bombs. He maintained that such web pages should be banned.
"But who would you entrust as the censor?" I asked.
"The United Nations," someone suggested. "An international committee."
I gave them the American civil libertarian point of view: that the Internet's lack of governance meant that nobody could censor them when they put their own information on the Web, but that meant that they couldn't censor anyone else, including people spewing hate, violence, or bomb making instructions. "As a democracy, we've pretty much concluded that the Internet must remain free in spite of the dangers. You are also a democracy and will have to come to your own conclusions."
My fellow lecturer at the conference was Pranab Kumar Chakravarty of the Computer Centre at Banaras Hindu University, a green, spacious campus at the edge of town. We drove out to the campus at his invitation and toured the well-appointed lab with its Unix terminals and Hewlett-Packard servers. The students certainly seem well prepared-having fought their way through brutally competitive schools, whose do-or-die reliance on examination scores is more akin to Japan's system than to America's. For its Master in Computer Application program, the university accepts just 30 applicants each year from throughout the country, who apply through written examination. During their three-year stay, students write 18 theory papers, program in multiple languages (including Pascal, Fortran, C++ and SQL), and cover numerical statistical methods, operating systems, networking, compiler design and artificial intelligence.
While not in Bangalore, the program still represents the kind of elite environment in which highly selected students are all but assured of employment. "By their third year, most students have a job offer in their pocket," said Dr. C. Maheswari, a senior professor in the program. If the group we spoke with is any indication, that may well mean obtaining a passport. Many of the students expected to spend at least part of their early career outside India, with the Silicon Valley seen as the promised land. The discussion then turned to life in California. On the blackboard, I drew a crude map of the Bay Area, locating the Silicon Valley as an amorphous area centered around Stanford University. We talked about the high cost of housing, the advantages and drawbacks of working for a startup company, and the culture shock of negotiating an American freeway at rush hour.
Later, sitting outside at a campus chai stall, I asked our hosts why they thought Indians had been so successful in the technical realm. "For that, you'd have to come and live here for a year," said Maheswari. I suggested the Indian work ethic contributed: devoted workers and a more detailed academic program. But Maheswari, himself a physicist, said that in his experience, Americans worked just as hard, sometimes under even more demanding programs.
And if Indians are proud of their countrymen's accomplishments overseas, they are critical of the country's own track record. Why, they ask, should all this programming talent be put in the service of other countries? Where is India's answer to Microsoft-a home grown Indian company producing world class software? One possible answer is that Indian would-be entrepreneurs just don't have the resources of their industrialized counterparts. Whereas many middle class American kids take home computers for granted, Indian kids can't get that kind of hands-on experience. Or perhaps the educational system has something to do with it. Most American universities try to encourage independent thinking, the kind demanded of entrepreneurs. Indian education is much more hierarchical, with students showing greater respect to their professors and teachers, but in doing so, not challenging the status quo-whereas new businesses often do precisely that.
Figuring out what's important
The lack of computer resources not only impacts computer education, but the penetration of the Internet into the culture. At a conference last December held in Delhi, an executive from Microsoft's India business assumed that India was destined for the American model, in which ubiquitous Internet connections were both possible and desirable. But audience members pushed back. Why should the government provide good Internet connections when it can't even provide potable water? How can you wire places who only have power for a few hours a day, who don't even have telephone service, much less access to an ISP? In India, an estimated 75 percent of the 1 billion population lives not in the cities, but in some 50,000 villages.
We spent the night in one of them-a friendly place in the Rajastan region surrounded by the Great Indian Desert. After the sun set, the village was lit by lanterns and candlelight. Forget television after dark, forget evening Web surfing. Indeed, forget televisions and computers. This was a place where a light bulb still constitutes the technology of the future. And while the cities fare better than rural outposts like this one, the power flow is hardly reliable or consistent. As the Los Angeles Times recently noted: "Living in New Delhi is a daily drama of exploding appliances, short circuits and flaming fuse boxes," with electrical problems blamed on two-thirds of the city's 15,000 annual fires.
And then there's the broader question: even if you have a telephone hookup, perhaps wireless, and reliable power: for what would the Internet be used? Does the Internet-or will it-contain the resources needed by, say, subsistence-level farmers? Or is the Internet inherently a commercial medium, better suited for Sony, Ford and Disney? Conventional wisdom has it that the Internet is simply demand-based: if enough people want information, someone will provide the site. But conventional wisdom doesn't always apply to this medium. Developing countries represent a different audience for Web services, and it remains to be seen whether the Internet can deliver the goods.
India may not be ready to wire every village, but the country was at least thinking about how to keep its best and brightest students flourishing at home. And its best and brightest students were taking themselves and their craft seriously-an important first step. As we finished our chai and prepared to depart the university, Dr. Maheswari gave us Americans some friendly advice. "Keep an eye on us," he said. "In a few years, India may well catch up."
Email Greetings from India
The Indian subcontinent is about 12,000 miles from the American West Coast. Nonetheless, staying in touch by email proved both easy and inexpensive, with no need to carry a laptop or figure out how to reach your ISP. The secret is India's thriving new business sector: drop-in Internet services. These small establishments cater mostly to international visitors, though the locals are beginning to use them as well. You sit at a terminal, the proprietor notes the time on the desktop clock, you pull up a web-based email service (Hotmail was favored), and the world is at your fingertips. The price: around $2.
The services are hardly lavish-typically four to six networked PCs crammed into a small room. But they do the job with admirable efficiency, with one server providing a single-line connection for the entire establishment. Because India's power is both unreliable and uneven, uninterrupted power supplies were usually employed to protect data and equipment against surges. The service we used in Varanasi maintained a bank of car batteries, and one night, I was able to send mail via a computer powered by a gasoline generator.
Of course, one could bring a laptop, and if you were traveling on business and staying in five-star hotels, a laptop might serve you well. But if you want to immerse yourself in India, not just glimpse it from a distance, five-star hotels are just a gleaming barrier. Our alternative was to stay in more modest accommodations and share an NEC Mobilepro for notetaking. The Windows CE handheld (which NEC no longer manufacturers) proved lightweight and compact, and its monochrome screen required just two AA batteries. I used the device to tap out an entire speech.
But for connecting with the Internet, India's Internet services served us well. From Jaiselmir and Jaipur to Jodpur and New Delhi, we usually found email connectivity within walking distance. Sometimes, the walk was memorable. From our Varanasi hotel on the Ganges, I had to memorize the route through a maze of "alleys" so narrow that only a sliver of sky appeared above, past the chants of Hindu prayers, water buffalo being milked, motor scooters running near full throttle, and the clatter of school kids underfoot. These pathways of the old town eventually opened up to a broader street, with chai stands and women squatting on blankets selling vegetables at the local food market. Cross the street, dodging the bicycle rickshaws, and look for the banner for Internet services, up a small flight of stairs, where the proprietor warns you about the low-hanging doorway.
While the modems are state-of-the-art 56Kbps, throughput speeds suffer from overtaxed servers. By the early afternoon, a single web page with graphics turned off can take more than a minute to load, sometimes timing out. Outside of Delhi, where throughput was better, we quickly learned that the best time to send email was when the shops opened at 8AM.
While this delay was merely inconvenient for us, it will prove a barrier to Internet adoption for Indians themselves, many of whom blame the government's monopoly for keeping data traffic bogged down. Still, plans are at least in the talking stages for a nationwide high speed backbone. In Varanasi, the university is looking into building its own Web server and selling ISP services to outsiders. Both these and other moves will be necessary if India is to truly become an online nation. While the country is famous for its collective patience, even Hindu apprentice monks have been known to get frustrated at the slow speeds. "A religious man still gets angry," says Vilas. "We are, after all, human beings. But the difference is: we don't stay angry as long."