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Dispatch from a far flung corner of India

Hindi Wikipedia logo(This is the fifth installment in a series of updates from the WikiHistories summer research fellows, who will be studying the virtual community history of different Wikipedia editing communities.)

A towel, as any Douglas Adams fan will tell you, is a necessity for galactic travel. One would likely be helpful in India as well, but more useful is a copy of The New York Review of Books. Surprisingly, this publication, which was passed onto me as a hand-me-down of a hand-me-down has proven the most vital instrument in a backpack full of useful things. Forget the snacks, scarf, Hindi grammar book, and hand sanitizer, NYRB is the most versatile, acting as a fan, shooing away bugs, and many articles are interesting enough to pass large amounts of time with little effort while others are so exceptionally dull they promote sleep in even the noisiest of circumstances. Clearly, I have found the perfect travel companion.

My backpack might make me look like every other twenty- or thirty-something traveler trying to find the answer (man) but what I’m looking for is a little different than the tour-led culture or the off-the-grid spirituality.

While the Hindi-language Wikipedians I’ve tried to meet with have been timid – understandably, as there are only 2 active administrators and fewer than 250 active editors (compare that to English Wikipedia’s 1,500 administrators and 144,000 active users) – it’s been quite easy to explain the fellowship project to those I’ve met. My fellow travelers, the ex-pats I’ve met and many of the locals all seem intrigued by the project.

Several of the middle-class non-Wikipedian locals I spoke to didn’t know there was a Hindi-language version of the Wikipedia but thought it made sense and one journalist even said he’s considered looking at the community of Indian Wikipedians himself. Of course, when a debate came up about the ages of Bollywood stars this didn’t stop anyone from searching in English on their mobiles.

That, of course, is one of the biggest challenges to the Hindi-Wikipedian community, how do they compete for readership with the English-language version when cellular and computer technology is sold to consumers with Roman alphabet keyboards and pre-installed English-language web browsers? There is, of course, also the question where Hindi Wikipedia fits into the urban/rural landscape of India.

Surprisingly, it was in Khajuraho, a small town of fewer than 20,000 residents in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh that people seemed less willing to speak to me in Hindi. The taxi drivers and train passengers of Delhi and Rajasthan were surprised when I used the language, but in rural Madhya Pradesh the local pride is in their ability to use English. Not only has this been unexpected but it makes me wonder about the intended audience for a Hindi Wikipedia.

Clearly, for the rural residents of Khajuraho, English is the language they use to demonstrate their education while the urban editors of Hindi Wikipedia are trying to retain a linguistic heritage. It was only an elderly security guard at Khajuraho’s temples who finally engaged with me in his language after he used all the English he appeared to know. One might assume, as I did, that it would be the urban elites who wish to speak in English while the rural residents would focus on Hindi but in fact the opposite was true. Everywhere I went middle and upper class urbanites switched easily from one language to the other, perhaps aware of the colonial implications of English in a way their rural counterparts aren’t.

Even more surprising in Khajuraho than the refusal to use Hindi by the young people when speaking to a Westerner is the access to the Internet. For three days in Delhi I scrambled to get a SIM card that would offer me access to the Internet (turns out you need a passport photo here to get connected, or know the right people). Wifi was almost nowhere, even several high-end hotels told me one could plug into the ethernet but there was no wifi available. Jaipur, a city of more than 2.5 million has intermittent and very slow internet and my cellular internet is useless. In tiny Khajuraho however several restaurants announce free wifi and jewelry shops double as Internet access points, not that I’ve yet actually seen anyone taking advantage of these technological options, and I image they are also exceedingly slow.

As an outsider I can only make educated guesses about both the language and internet usage questions that I have. Rather than speculate, I turned to Ajay Awasthi, a local documentary filmmaker and cofounder of an educational and environmental charity called Global Voices. Awasthi confirmed my suspicions that in the rural community English is the language that designates education, which is why everyone here insists on speaking to me in my native tongue. Because Khajuraho is a center of tourism in an area largely dependent on agriculture, students here also learn a little French and a little Spanish alongside English and Hindi to allow them access to the tourist rupees. While initially it may seem positive that local kids are given an alternative to agriculture, Awasthi warns that many young people leave school as soon as they’re able to earn a living and are not truly becoming educated. Of course, here lies the moral dilemma for the tourist as well. When a young person asks for money for his education it feels terrible to look the child in the eye and say no, but one does just this in hopes that the same child will stay in school longer. Providing access to information in the local, native language is exactly why Wikipedians are working in Hindi (as well as a handful of other Indic language Wikipedias). Their work demonstrates and reminds us that these languages have a long history that is deeply tied to the communities who use them.

As for internet, Awasthi says the majority of the computers in town are internet only machines set up for tourist use. When locals do use computers, he says, they do so in English and mostly as communication devices. These young people aren’t searching the web for information, they’re simply logging on to connect with friends. That the technology they have is in English is telling. In fact, even the small coins, worth one and two rupees, don’t carry Devanagari numbers, and instead are emblazoned with the familiar 1 and 2 numeral, accompanied by the image of a hand holding up the corresponding fingers for those without basic numeral literacy.

For those working on Hindi Wikipedia this means the rural population, which could benefit from the efforts of these Wikipedians, are unlikely to ever come across the project. Of course, this doesn’t mean the project is doomed or the work done isn’t important. As internet usage and media expands into rural areas young people are more and more likely to experience urban lifestyles and in time many of these same people may begin to seek out more information about those other walks of life.

Thus far, every step of my trip has benefited from the generosity and knowledge of others. Before long I’ll have read the entire New York Review of Books and its usefulness will diminish but I have no doubt that something unexpected will sneak in to take its place as just the thing I need at just the moment I need it.

Patricia Sauthoff
Wikimedia Summer Fellow
Masters candidate, History, University of London

4 Responses to “Dispatch from a far flung corner of India”

  1. Patricia Sauthoff says:

    Thanks for the feedback guys! I just saw the comments now that I’m back home where the internet is plenty and I have access to a full-blown computer.

  2. Bishakha says:

    Love this post. Not only did the NY Review of Books make me laugh, I think you really hit the nail on the head about the politics and practices of language use in India. English is aspirational for many reasons: it is the language of the elite, it ensures access to certain work opportunities that are not available to non-English speakers, and it gives ‘status’ to the user. At the same time, most Indians know many languages – at the minimum, one they use at home, and another for work/school/whatever.

    Totally agree that if it as easy to type in Hindi as it is in English, via software/keyboard improvements, this will help remove the tech barrier. As for removing the aspirational barrier, that’s a whole different ballgame, but maybe removing tech barriers will increase ease of use of indic languages, hence increase use, hence popularity, and aspirations too may change some.

    Thanks for a very perceptive post.

  3. Dr R K S Rathore says:

    Hi Patricia’
    I fully indorse your observation for Hindi speaking belt of India. English and other foreign languages are very much related with the employment market here, hence these have an edge over Hindi and other Indian languages. For example I come from Hindi speaking belt of India but hardly use it on internet simply because I feel more comfortable to communicate through English globally. At the same time I have great regards for those working for Hindi and other Indian languages to generate authentic information for my countrymen.

  4. Ravi says:

    Majority of the Indian people still rely on their native language TVs, radios, newspapers and magazines to get information. When internet and Wikipedia becomes as accessible like these traditional media, the use of native language will be more.

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