Remembering Atul Chitnis, internet pioneer and fierce open source warrior

Shivam Srivastav June 3, 2017 12 min

If you have not keenly followed the history of the Indian tech industry, you will not have heard of Atul Chitnis. Go ahead, Google him up. He is described as “an Indian consulting technologist” on Wikipedia. That’s like saying Steve Jobs worked at the intersection of technology and humans. Or, Richard Stallman is a free software evangelist. Or, Satish Dhawan was an Indian aerospace engineer. Or, Marie Curie was a radioactivity researcher.

Putting Chitnis in the territory of the greats is not just for reasons of writing a tribute, but for squaring up with him for the credit due to the Indian internet pioneer and open source software evangelist. It is because of the likes of Chitnis that a newfangled thing called the internet started being talked about in the nineties in India. It is because of the likes of Chitnis that this part of the world saw opportunity in something called open source software at a time of hegemony of Windows, whose market USP was not its few million lines of code but ironclad corporate agreements that gave it market access. We use “the likes of Chitnis” because there were others at the forefront of these movements in India at the time, too, but Chitnis was the first among equals among them.

It is because of the likes of Chitnis that a newfangled thing called the internet started being talked about in the nineties in India.  

When you look at  the Indian tech scene you will find leaders who inspire selling you the dream of what technology can achieve (think Rajan Anandan), brilliant technologists who even after 20 years as managers can spot inelegant code (think Krishna Bharat), corporate generals who have got tens of thousands of workers to march in lockstep (think N R Narayana Murthy), and educationists who have introduced technology to thousands (think Prof S Sadagopan).

Chitnis with daughter Geetanjali
Chitnis with daughter Geetanjali. Picture courtesy Kalyan Verma

But it is difficult to spot leaders who have steered events — and, indeed, history — from the outside. Chitnis, who died on June 3 four years ago, was one such leader in India’s software ecosystem. India’s muscled-up technology space today —  more than 400 million internet users, 100 million online buyers expected this year, the second largest market by users for the likes of Facebook and LinkedIn, and the largest market for WhatsApp — owes much to the evangelising that a handful of early adopters like Chitnis did in the 1990s.

At a time when there was no internet and no email, he set up CiX in 1989 which was India’s first, and in Chitnis’s own words, probably most popular bulletin board system (BBS), an application dedicated to the sharing or exchange of messages or other files on a network in a public manner. This was also possibly India’s first online social network and had its server set up in Chitnis’s house. Its most crucial contribution was to get like minded people together and set the conversation rolling.

India’s muscled-up technology space today owes much to the evangelising that a handful of early adopters like Chitnis did in the 1990s.

Prasanto K Roy, former top editor at tech media group Cybermedia, says Chitnis was “clearly” the pioneer of internet in India. “In the form of the electronic bulletin board, he not only created the first one CiX but also created the actual platform. As a result, some of us who experienced that BBS  went on to use that platform for our BBS,” says Roy.

What set Chitnis apart was that he was able to gauge what was happening in the world outside, at a time when the internet was just taking off and Bangalore was seen as a city suited for retirees.

Reading was a habit and that helped, but Chitnis was also good at connecting dots. “He was so good at logical thinking that sometimes people would  approach him to find out the detail of a long lost relative and he would successfully help them,” says his daughter, Geetanjali Chitnis, a freelance content strategist and writer.

Gen. Geekdom has a sore throat

There are rival claimants to India’s first BBS and one of them was Chitnis’s best friend: Kishore Bhargava. “I met Atul in 1990,  he too had started the BBS just like me and we had been communicating for around a year before actually meeting,” says Bhargava. Chitnis on his blog says he met Bhargava “in the summer of 1989” and we are inclined to go with that date given the former’s exactitude in all matters.

Kishore Bhargava (left) and Chitnis in 1992. Image courtesy Bhargava

Who set up a BBS first? “Coincidentally, the launch of the systems was just days apart. Both of us claimed to have started a BBS in the country first and we eventually called it a truce by admitting that I was the first in North India and his was the first in the South,” laughs Bhargava, who currently runs technology consulting firm Linkaxis Technologies.

BBSs proved that data communication was possible over patchy telecom infrastructure in India at the time. We are talking of a time when it took at least a couple of years in most parts of the country to get a fixed-line phone. Most people would mock at the idea saying we can barely make conversation over the phone and you want to send data over it, recalls Bhargava.

We are talking of a time when it took at least a couple of years in most parts of the country to get a fixed-line phone.  

It took a seminar in New Delhi for him and Chitnis to realise they were kindred spirits. There were 800 people in the audience and Chitnis, who was suffering a sore throat, lost his voice midway through a presentation, says Bhargava. “He signalled to me to take over the presentation. I took it up. The seminar ended up being a quite long — four to six hours — but his slides came to me very naturally and the presentation went off smoothly. It was at the point we decided to start working together as our thinking was so similar.”

Younger brother Arun, who moved to India from Germany with Chitnis and their mother Monika in 1972, talks about his sibling’s passion with technology early on in their lives in this blogpost. They were eight and 10 years old respectively then.

Though we both had immense readjustment problems (we didn’t even speak English when we arrived) Atul’s school life in India appeared much smoother than mine. The real problems started when Atul joined college – that was the point where it became evident that he had no inclination for mechanical engineering at all.

There were only three things that really interested him by then – a charming girl called Shubha Deshpande, a guitar he had somehow wrenched out of our father, and a strange little device about the size of a grocer’s calculator.

To me, it was nothing more than that – a calculator. It turned out that this little piece made by Casio was a lot more than that. Atul would attach it to our mother’s tape recorder and fill one tape after the other with screeching sounds not unlike those we still hear from dot-matrix printers in Government offices. The device was somehow interfacing with the battered old Telefunken tape recorder. They were communicating with each other and producing those strange sounds – programs.

Chitnis’s college romance culminated in his marriage to Shubha, who’s now a homemaker.

Big picture, rough edges

As much as he was admired for his tech worldview, Chitnis could be blisteringly caustic. He would never suffer fools, as people who were around him vouch for. “We went  through some of the toughest of times together, laughed, fought, and seen our lives take us down crazy paths,” wrote friend Gaurav Vaz after Chitnis’s funeral. “Today, talking to everyone who came to say goodbye to Atul, it struck me that our love-hate relationship was not exclusive; he seemed to have enjoyed this with all his friends.”

Brother Arun traces Chitnis’s rough edges to differences with their father Gopal Ganesh Chitnis, a hydraulics industrialist from Belgaum. The senior Chitnis’s nickname was “German Chitnis” for his time spent in Germany and his precise way of doing things. This is what Arun wrote:

Am I blaming our father for the unrelenting hardness that Atul was known for? To some extent, yes.

I tackled our father in a very different way – not very original, but effective. Atul met him head on – he gave him the middle finger and waited till he could take charge of his own life. He did that much sooner than I did. But he did not walk away a free man. The specter of not being good enough, for not meeting expectations, haunted both of us. When it came to our father, our childhood was defined by brutality and inhuman pressure to perform. You may feel that men should be able to outgrow that – and they do, but in their own ways. But there is ALWAYS a residual effect.

…it takes informed guidance and personal dedication to healing from such wounds if one is to overcome them. Atul had no time or patience for such stuff. He had better things to do – and one of the reasons why so much has been written about him is that he was pretty damned good at what he did.

And, how! Chitnis did well in that he found a calling that he was passionate about. And, he got lucky have a crack at two: technology and  music. “My grandmother passed down the love of music to both of her sons. They initially grew up to a lot of music in the house while in Germany. The Beatles meant a lot to my father aside from others like Eric Clapton, the Bee Gees…,” says Geetanjali.

According to her, you could tell how he was doing through the day through the kind of music he was listening to. “I remember there were times during the rains when the power would go and he would just sit outside and play. That’s one of the times when he wasn’t busy with work and was accessible. He always hummed when he worked and if he didn’t, then you knew something was wrong.”

The world is not closed

Chitnis is also credited with shaping the open source movement in India. According to Bhargava, there were many people who may have been part of it in the early days but Chitnis was one of the most influential and publicly visible supporters of it.

“Our open source movement  was way ahead of its time. It was initially not about the philosophy but more about adopting the free of the freedom… free in terms of the cost,” says Bhargava. “Over the years this issue has become mainstream, it no longer needs creating awareness. Events such as FOSS.in fuelled the open source community in India.” Chitnis was among the most enthusiastic organisers of FOSS.in, an annual free and open source software event that ran between 2001 and 2012 in Bengaluru. It was billed as one of Asia’s largest such events of its time.

Some photographs of Chitnis with his mother and brother, Arun Chitnis, from the latter’s blog

If you are going to be an evangelist of a cause like open source that the average person on the street knows nothing about, you need to be a brilliant communicator.  “I enjoy stripping technology of its mystique and making it comprehensible to laymen,” he described himself on his biography blogpost, explaining why he was sought widely to speak on technology.

If you are going to be an evangelist of a cause like open source that the average person on the street knows nothing about, you need to be a brilliant communicator.  

But not many know that Chitnis was not able to speak English until the age of 10. “He knew only German. After having moved to a small city like Belgaum he had to do a lot of adjustments to settle in and make new friends. So the doggedness to learn something new in a new place set in a motion a trait of doing things the right way and always being open to learn,” Geetanjali says.

Chitnis was a big fan of Steve Jobs, not surprisingly for the traits they shared. Both had no space for mediocrity, both were obsessive when it came to attention to detail, both spoke their mind, both had little regard for status quo,  and it was hard to win a argument with both. “There were shades of the vision of Jobs because Atul had a similar hack of looking at the world beyond and where things would go, especially with connectivity and community. Nobody spoke of community at that point in time in the online sense we know it today,” says ex-journalist Roy, adding that Chitnis was never keen on translating his vision into commercial products. He chose to stay evangelist.

Chitnis had no patience in dealing with bureaucracy in any setting and more particularly in government. “He had little patience for it and if you were working with him for the first time, things could get difficult,” Roy says. Bhargava adds that Chitnis wasn’t scared to speak his mind, no matter who was in the room, and ended up rubbing people the wrong way.

“He had little patience for it (bureaucracy) and if you were working with him for the first time, things could get difficult,” — Prasanto K Roy

His faith in meritocracy and near-obsessive attention to detail played out in Chitnis’s personal life, too. “When we were building our house, my parents met several architects. In the end, my father placed his trust in a young architect who was just 23 years old just because he was able to understand what my dad wanted,” says Geetanjali. Getting a house built can be exhausting for most but Chitnis chose to be “most involved” exchanging articles, thoughts, and pictures with the architect regularly. “We had gone out for lunch to a restaurant and he noticed the stone detail there. He immediately took a picture of it and sent it to the architect,” she says.

Like all of us draw strength from great minds, Chitnis drew his inspiration from Confucius. “Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life,” he quotes the Chinese philosopher on his blog, which is still alive.

But he also wrote this: “But if you really dig, you’ll find that this line describes me best:

“You aren’t remembered for doing what is expected of you”

Chitnis went beyond norms and pushed the boundaries of what is possible with the internet and software in a country that was at the cusp of big change. The pulsing internet that Indians take for granted today, arguably, is Chitnis’s legacy.

 


Updated on June 3 at 3:05 pm to correct a mistake in the photo caption with Bhargava and Chitnis.