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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
“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