Thaths It: A Young Man's Story of How Linux India Blossomed into Chaos

by Frederick Noronha

To many Linux enthusiasts across India, he's simply known as Thaths. But Sudhakar Chandrashekaran modestly calls himself a "slacker at large". He is one of the guys who played a key role in promoting the Linux India network, even while seated many thousand miles away in the US, in the offices of Netscape.

"Growing up all over India made me a wanderer," he says. In 1993, Thaths graduated with a BE from "small-time" Annamalai University, located in the extreme south of India. But, he says he'll "never trade the wonderful experience in Annamalai for any of the IITs of the world".

Following the footsteps of thousands of other young Indian graduates he went to the US to pursue an MS at the University of Texas at Austin. He soon became "disillusioned with academia" and dropped out to pursue a career in the then emerging internet industry. "Six years of working in the industry drained some more idealism", as he puts it. He is currently looking for a satisfying career in teaching or photography or programming.

We'd exchanged e-mails for a while--guess that must be the case with many fans of Linux in India. We met in the flesh in December 2001, at the LinuxBangalore2001 mega-meet, when this unassuming young man dropped by unannounced.

In his early 20s, his is a story typical of many Indian software geeks of this generation, home-grown experts whose parents simply didn't have the money to buy a computer. Those who (as in Thaths' case) probably had to sneak in their first copy of Linux onto their office PC while the boss was away.

Frederick: At what stage did you come across Linux India (LI)?

Thaths: I think it was late 1997. Linux India then had maybe five or six subscribers. I recall Arun Sharma and Karra Dakshinamurthy (ILUG-Chennai, in Southern India) as being part of the mailing list.

There was no set purpose for LI back then. We were all engaged in thinking about various ideas to start Linux-based businesses in India and to popularise the OS.

Frederick: Since then, what major developments happened on the Linux India front? Has it moved forward or back? Any major missed opportunities that could be regretted? Did we do better than expected?

Thaths: The most major development that happened was the explosion in awareness and membership to the mailing lists. By the time I left in early 2001, there were over 2,000 active and non-active members.

The blooming of the regional LUGs was also a wonderful thing. The regional LUGs provide wonderful hands-on support needed by many users. And they also foster a sense of community that a simple mailing list cannot provide. So in that sense, the movement has definitely gone forward.

As for missed opportunities, I'm not sure. My one single lost opportunity would be not registering LI as an official nationwide non-profit organization. I think for a brief moment during LI's existence, there was a window of opportunity for the creation of a nation-wide body. But that window closed and the LI community began to be more regional in nature, with more active involvement of members in their local LUGs.

I am ambivalent about this. In a sense this is exactly the sort of issue India as a nation is going through. Am I an Indian first and a Tamil second? Or am I a Tamil first and an Indian second? There is no right answer. It's Yin and Yang.

A nation-wide body has the advantage of providing a unified face to the world. But such a unified face would, in fact, be a mask hiding the many divisions within the body.

The small local LUGs, on the other hand, provide a nice cozy atmosphere. Different LUGs, I notice today, provide different focuses. ILUG-Chennai, for example, seems to be focusing on Debian, while ILUG-Bangalore seems to be focusing on Linux for businesses and research. The disadvantage of local LUGs, however, is that they cannot aspire for bigger events.

The Simputer project is one of the things I'm most proud of. Even though it did not directly come from the LI efforts, I'd like to believe that the groundwork of popularising Linux that LI did helped the Simputer project in some way.

Frederick: What were your own experiences with Linux?

Thaths: I was one of the first batch of school students exposed to computers in 11th and 12th standards. I remember gaining more of my knowledge from reading outdated books than from actual hands-on experience.

In school, they were teaching things like FORTRAN and core memory, things that I would never use in my life. The teachers were not that great either. Very soon I realized that I had more information about programming than the teachers did.

I was allotted two hours of computer hands-on time every week. Because I befriended the teachers, they would let me use the computers in the morning, before the school assembly, and during lunch. So I could squeeze in maybe an extra hour a day.

My family isn't rich and we could not afford to buy a computer. So I joined the British Council because they had an aging BBC Micro that I could use. My first "real" program was a game that I wrote using BASIC.

Studying UNIX in a course during college, I fell in love with it. One of my friends in the US mailed me a printout of the New Hackers Dictionary (Jargon File), and after reading about the history of the Internet and UNIX I was hooked. I finally had a role model to aspire to: J. Random Hacker.

I used Windows only when I came to the US. Most of my previous exposure was to DOS and command-line UNIX. When I first started working, I started playing around with Linux (this was around December 1995) because I wanted to install a full-fledged UNIX system and maintain it.

I didn't have the money to buy expensive software, such as web servers for Windows NT 3.51. But Linux came with its own set of industrial strength servers, and I could download them all for free.

Serious involvement with Linux began for me in early 1997. Not satisfied with my Windows NT desktop, I installed Debian on my system while my boss was away one week. By the time he came back, I had a perfectly running system, and he couldn't really say anything.

Frederick: You obviously see a special potential for Linux in India. Why?

Thaths: India has a long history with UNIX. Many of our legacy applications are developed for the mainframes or UNIX machines. With Linux, we could cheaply and easily migrate these legacy applications to newer hardware.

A developing country like India cannot really afford to pay thousands of dollars to buy expensive licenses from Sun and Microsoft. I think every government-funded software effort should be based on Linux. Instead of using tax-payer money to buy software from foreign companies, we should be using this money to develop applications using Linux. This way, the government would be funneling public funds back into the community.

Despite India's many strengths in the IT industry, we have not really produced any popular application; the Indian IT industry seems to be concentrating on the services sector. Linux's freely available source code could provide the spark that is needed to make India a developer of applications too.

Frederick: Tell us something about your collaboration with some of the key players promoting Linux in India? Whom do you admire and why?

Thaths: It is difficult to name one single person, but I decide to offend some of the players by naming names. Arun Sharma, the founder of LI, is someone I admire. Were it not for him, LI might not exist.

I see him being attacked these days because of his stand on defending other alternative operating systems, such as FreeBSD. This is deplorable. Arun often shines fresh light on the clannish nature of Linux and the short-sightedness of some of its proponents. People like him are essential to the community. In the words of Thomas Jefferson, "The price of freedom is eternal vigilance." People like Arun provide the vigilance that freedom requires. Somebody has to have the courage to say the emperor (penguin) is only partially clothed.

Frederick: You suddenly took-off from the Linux India network and quit amidst some mystery. Why?

Thaths: For a bunch of reasons.

For starters, I had reached a watershed in my career and my life. I finally had some independence to choose the job I wanted. I've always wanted to travel around the world, so I took the opportunity to actually do it.

Another reason was that the LI community was depending too much on my neutrality. My neutrality was because I was not physically in India. If I were a member of ILUG-Chennai, I'm not sure I would have the same reputation of being impartial.

I felt that I was a crutch. Sometimes it is essential to take the crutch away from the recovering person, so she may fully regain her strength.

Frederick: Can you chart the growth of Linux India? What were the major milestones along the way? What about the growth of LUGs?

Thaths: LI mailing lists grew from five to almost 2,000 people in three years. That is a significant growth. However, it must be pointed out that during the last two years the growth has stagnated. This is partially because of the inherent nature of high-volume mailing lists; they are not conducive to newbies. Only the die-hards can handle the amount of e-mails generated in the list.

I would say the major milestones were Bangalore, Jon "Maddog" Hall's and Richard Stallman's trips to India, the Simputer project and the localization of KDE into Indian languages by the IndLinux project.

The flowering of the local LUGs is also commendable. There are now LUGs not only in the metros but also in small towns. I think it would be nice if every major university or engineering or science college established a LUG in their city, if one does not already exist.

Frederick: If Indians have not contributed to GNU/Linux as much as they could have, why do you believe this is so?

Thaths: I think the lack of direct first-hand contribution is not restricted only to Linux and IT. There are other areas in which India has not made significant contributions in the recent past.

When the British introduced the English (language) education system in India, we produced Nobel laureates in only two generations. Tagore and C.V. Raman's grandparents did not have the benefits of a modern Western education.

This is something to be proud of. However, I see that we as a nation have not produced any great scientists or engineers in the recent past. People like Sabeer Bhatia, of Hotmail fame, and (BV) Jagdeesh and Chandrashekar, of Exodus fame, are better businessmen than engineers or scientists. With the hindsight of the industry downturn, much of their lustre is also lost.

I think the reason for this state of affairs is the lack of infrastructure. The free market economic theorists say that if foreign investment were allowed into India, the money would trickle down from the consumer sectors into infrastructure. I don't know if this is true. Only time will tell.

Frederick: Do you anticipate a bursting forth of Indians on the GNU/Linux scene globally in times ahead?

Thaths: I do. Already there is a small but significant number of contributors to the Linux kernel. We have Indians working on the KDE and Helix Gnome projects.

Our educational system, despite its many faults, is better than the systems in many other countries. I am sure that as more and more teenagers get access to the Internet and computers, our involvement in GNU/Linux will improve vastly.

Frederick: What are the strategies that would work best for the growth of Linux in India -- decentralisation, more LUGs, localisation, media blitz, what else?

Thaths: Linux should be incorporated into the curriculum of schools and colleges.

Linux, in addition to being a robust operating system, is also a wonderful tool for education. All government-funded IT research should be done under an open-software license.

One last piece of advice I have is for people who are considering a career in computers. Do not register for a course that your computer institute says is hot. The industry moves so fast that by the time you graduate in a year or so, this field might not be as desirable.

Learn the basics well and then choose to study what interests you. If you study what interests you, then you will excel in it. And if you excel in it, you won't have to worry about getting a job.

Frederick: Tell us something about yourself, your career past and your future plans. What makes you tick?

Thaths: I grew up in a typical middle-class south Indian family. Luckily for me, my father had a transferable job, which gave me an opportunity to live in many parts of India and experience India's diversity first-hand.

Even as a young boy I was into tinkering with mechanical things. I clearly remember the first toy motor that my father bought me from a second-hand store. Being mechanically minded, I had no second thoughts about becoming an engineer. I did my Bachelor's degree in Annamalai University in Chidambaram. After graduation I then took the easiest avenue available to me, doing an MS in the States.

I realized while doing my MS in Biomedical Engineering that I did not like that field very much. So I dropped out of college in the summer of 1995 and found a job with Prodigy in New York working on their next generation internet-access software.

When I got an interview call from Netscape in late 1996 there really were no doubts in my mind that it was my dream job. But after working at Netscape for four-and-half years, I realized that my work was only making rich people richer and not contributing directly to the community. So I have decided to pursue a career in the non-profit sector.

What makes me tick? I'd say the pleasure I get from teaching something to someone. When I realize that I have conveyed some idea to someone else and they have understood it, a sense of fulfillment fills me.

Homo Sapiens are the only species that have developed the art of communicating abstract ideas via language. It is interesting to think that hundreds of years after we are gone, our ideas in the form of our words will continue to exist for future generations.

Frederick Noronha is a freelance journalist in Goa, India.

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