Atul Chitnis, Ahead of His Time Once More

[Guest post by Kiran Jonnalagadda, co-founder of  HasGeek]

Atul Chitnis (Image: Wikipedia)

Atul Chitnis (Image: Wikipedia)

Yesterday afternoon we watched as the cremator loaded Atul Chitnis’s body into the furnace. The small camphor flame on his chest gave way to roaring flames that engulfed his body. That was the last we saw of him in his mortal form.

Atul liked having the last word in any argument. The debate wasn’t over until he had driven his point through. This single trait simultaneously led to bruised egos and education for people who hadn’t sufficiently researched their opinions. Only, this time, he was up against an opponent even more determined to have the last word.

Cancer is a terrible disease, and it will take a lot to fight it – physically, emotionally, financially – but it is a battle that I am going to fight – and fight to win. — Atul Chitnis, 25 September 2012

RIP, Atul Chitnis.

I first met Atul, appropriately enough, in cyberspace in 1996. I was sixteen at that time. I had known of Atul for some years already through his COMversations column in PC Quest magazine, but the worlds he described, of cyberspace, bulletin boards and CompuServe, were far beyond my reach. This was a scant five years after liberalization. BSNL did not exist yet. The phone line at home arrived several years after we applied for it, and that was considered normal.

And so, when I finally had access to a phone line and a modem, I did the expected thing. I dialed into The CyberInfo eXchange, Atul’s bulletin board service. CiX had been online since at least 1989, making it India’s first BBS. I was technically rather late to the party – bulletin boards had only another three or four years to go before the internet wiped them out.

If that last statement confused you, perhaps an explanation is in order: CiX was not on the internet. It never was. You did not get to CiX by typing a URL into your browser. There was no URL to it. There was no Chrome or Firefox or Internet Explorer or even Netscape back then.

CiX was a Bulletin Board Service, a computer attached to a phone line that answered calls. You could call this number with a modem attached to your computer at home and then you’d get a blank screen where whatever you typed was sent to the other side one character at a time. The BBS would present you a login prompt, you’d type your username and password, and then you’d get a command line of sorts where you could ask for messages addressed to you or leave messages for others.

Crucially, while you were on the line with the BBS (“on the line”, “online”, get it?), the line was engaged and nobody else could be online at the same time. Some bulletin board operators could afford to get a second or third phone line, but the vast majority could not, and CiX operated with a single line. Etiquette demanded that you stay online for as little time as possible, downloading all your messages for reading at leisure offline. Two to three minutes per day was considered acceptable. If you stayed online for more than five minutes, the BBS automatically disconnected you to free itself up for another caller.

CiX’s community in the 1996-97 period consisted of several hundred individuals from around Bangalore, plus a scattered few from other cities who didn’t mind paying for long distance calls. On CiX I met a wild assortment of people – nerdy kids like myself, doctors, lawyers and software professionals, air force pilots, ham radio enthusiasts, priests, coffee plantation owners, silk saree salesmen, and of course, Atul Chitnis himself, CiX’s owner and operator.

I narrate this story to illustrate just how ahead of his time Atul Chitnis was. I was the cool kid in college for being online in 1996. When I wrote my own mail client later in the year to read and write mail in the QWK format that BBSes used, I became even cooler – but the software I wrote interacted with software that Atul had written years before – and he had done it way before most of the world understood its significance.

(In 2003 I built a website archiving messages from CiX, with Atul’s blessings.)

Most of us recall at least one person who did something that introduced us to a new world. Someone who had such a significant impact on our lives that no matter how we’ve drifted apart since, you can’t deny that your life took a turn for the better after meeting this person.

I can recall at least three such turns with Atul. Discovering cyberspace via CiX and other BBSes was the first. The second is what most people remember him for:

In March 1996, Atul Chitnis and the team at PC Quest put Slackware Linux on a CD-ROM on the cover of PC Quest magazine. That was momentous.

Of course we had heard of Linux already. Atul’s own columns in PC Quest covered it and Linux was the subject of discussions on CiX, but how did you actually get a copy of it? A Linux distribution, even in those early days, was several megabytes. The largest capacity portable disk of that time could store 1.44 MB. If you wanted a copy of Linux from someone, you had to take your computer to their house, set it up next to theirs, and copy files one disk at a time.

Or you could download it from the internet: leaving your computer online non-stop for days, praying nothing interrupted the connection, and exhausting half your annual quota for internet use. (The sole ISP at that time, VSNL, sold annual plans and had limited capacity on their servers. I had to wait a few years before I could afford my own connection.)

Atul-Chitinis-2

Atul Chitnis at FOSS.in

So, Linux on a CD in your hands, and in the hands of thousands of other nerds across the country. That was a big deal. That summer my friends and I pestered our parents to buy CD-ROM drives. We spent summer vacation trying to get this beast installed, accidentally or intentionally formatting our hard disks, discovering hardware incompatibilities, comparing notes with friends who had different hardware. When we did get all the way through, we found ourselves at a cryptic “#” prompt where “dir” did not produce the expected results. The magic incantation was “ls”, as we learnt from Atul’s accompanying text in the magazine.

Nothing worked like we were used to. That summer was brutal. I thought I knew everything about computers, but this was beyond me. I gave up and went back to DOS, but kept trying Linux until finally switching over two years later, in 1998. Linux held me by the scruff and shook me until I could see things in a new way.

What I did not realize at the time was that Atul Chitnis, the man who put Linux in our hands, went through a similarly brutal, life changing experience adopting Linux. Atul is remembered for saying that he did not hack code, he hacked people. Many take this to assume that Atul was not a programmer, that he was therefore less than suitable as a Linux evangelist.

I knew Atul before Linux and I will tell you this: Atul was a programmer, and a very good one. His tool of choice was Pascal. More precisely, Borland’s Turbo Pascal (and later Delphi). Borland produced a compiler that made binaries lighter than anything a C compiler could generate. Atul used this to full advantage, producing software that could run on resource constrained computers of the day. He wrote the CyberNet software that powered CiX.

Unfortunately, Borland did not make Pascal for Linux. The OpenPascal project attempted to, but took too long to make a usable release. Besides, the Linux programming environment was completely different from DOS and Windows, so the language was just one of several necessary skills. With growing internet access and the rise of dynamic websites, it was a time for new languages and new paradigms. It was the era of Perl, Python and PHP.

Linux marked the end of Atul’s programming career but also the start of a new one, as the rallying force behind a new community, and as a well recognised figure in technology consulting, helping companies across the country grapple with the new world of the internet and open source.

(I went through a similarly painful transition. I was a polyglot programmer in 1998, coding in assember, C, Pascal, Delphi, Quick Basic, Visual Basic, Java, and some C++, on DOS and Windows, but by 1999 Linux had reduced me to a monolingual Python programmer.)

Linux and the nationwide network of Linux User Groups set the stage for the third time Atul had a significant impact on my life.

In 1999, I had dropped out of school and taken up full-time employment as a technology writer at Chip magazine in Mumbai. I was then nineteen, but the youngest person on the team was a full year younger and similarly disinterested in school. We wrote articles on how to use computers for people who had recently acquired one. Meanwhile, dotcom mania was in full bloom and every week we got invited to another press event where some or the other technology vendor congratulated themselves for all the new features in their latest release.

After a couple of these events, I figured out the drill. A “tech event” meant you got to take half a day off from work. You’d go to a posh hotel that you’d never dare enter on a writer’s salary, get saluted at the door with important-looking people shaking your hands, and then you’d be led straight to the banquet where you’d feast like a famine refugee. In exchange for this, you were expected to sit in the audience and try not to be caught nodding off. Evening events included a round of drinks and everyone got sloshed (Chip was exceptional in prohibiting staff from drinking on duty).

We never wrote about these companies. Our magazine didn’t cater to readers looking to spend a quarter million dollars on a new database or CMS. (Vendors like Vignette and Blue Martini even accepted payment in startup equity.)

When we launched our own website the following year, I expected no less from the press in attendance. One reporter sat down at the demo computer, ignored the website on display, and proceeded to type “hotmail.com” into the browser. He looked at me quizzically when it failed to load. What kind of a sham was this? How could I explain to him that there was no internet connection at this hotel, that the website was actually running off a laptop hidden behind the demo desktop? This reporter had come to check his email and score free drinks. He went away disappointed.

Atul-Chitinis-3The Mumbai LUG (technically, the India Linux User Group – Bombay chapter, or ILUG-BOM for short) also held monthly events. We’d meet at G. Nagarjuna’s office at HBCSE, chat endlessly about new things we’d learnt, and finish with vada pav and other snacks in the cafeteria. Once in a while we’d convene at a new venue and break Linux on the uninitiated. Our events were intimate, unorganized and fun, but a far cry from professional tech events.

When I returned to Bangalore, I started attending the Bangalore Linux User Group’s (BLUG’s) meetups and was immediately impressed by how much more professional these events were. Led by Kingsly John, Biju Chacko, Jessica Prabhakar, Atul Chitnis and a few others, these events had an average turnout of a 100 or so, with a projector, whiteboards and amplified audio. Some months, a sponsoring company would offer their facilities. Other months, one of the organizers would book a hotel ballroom, pay out of pocket, and then collect dues from everyone who attended. The meetups happened whether or not there was a sponsor, and there was always a good turnout. I cut my speaking teeth at these events, learning how to make slides and deliver a message within a fixed time slot.

The BLUG under Atul’s direction had obtained stalls at BangaloreIT.com, the government’s annual IT expo, in 1999 and 2000. We now had the confidence to do bigger, so in mid 2001 we gathered in Atul’s office to discuss our own annual event. We spent several days working out the details but the task seemed to grow more gargantuan by the day. Most of us gave up on the project shortly after. I left to focus on my new career as an IT consultant.

Atul did not. He regrouped and continued driving the project until it unveiled as Linux Bangalore/2001, the first edition of the event that would become FOSS.IN in 2005 and continue its run until 2010 (with an encore in 2012). Linux Bangalore was the event that put India on the open source map. It grew into being one of the top four conferences on open source around the world. Every major project, from PHP to Mono, Firefox to the Linux kernel, had project leaders trooping to India in December to present here. Linux Bangalore and FOSS.IN elevated Atul into being the single most important figure in open source in India.

When Jessica Prabhakar, Manish Jethani and I put together Barcamp Bangalore in 2006, we took our ideals for an egalitarian, participant-focused event straight out of FOSS.IN. Barcamp Bangalore has made it through thirteen editions keeping that code intact. Later still, I found a way to make a career out of participant-focused events with HasGeek, combining learnings from Barcamp with the conference format FOSS.IN pioneered.

Running Linux Bangalore and FOSS.IN was never easy. Sponsors wouldn’t put money in an event that went counter to industry norms, an event where money didn’t buy either a speaking slot or a contact database. Zealots failed to understand how an event around “free” software could be in need of money to pay bills. Atul Chitnis – and this was one of his faults – didn’t suffer fools easily. He always chose to argue his viewpoint instead of ignoring the trolls and making peace with friends, and the abrasiveness often cost him the support he needed. When the community bickering got the better of him, he took the event private and kept it running with his own money. At every edition of Linux Bangalore and FOSS.IN, I’d see Atul slumped in a chair in the speaker’s lobby, running a fever, calling on all his reserves of energy to see it through the three, four and then five days of the event as it grew in size and prestige year after year.

When I last saw him in 2012, he looked paler than ever, the cancer clearly consuming him. How could he be in that chair one more year? I couldn’t bear to think of it, but Atul was certain. He already knew the dates for the 2013 edition. This year, for the first time in over a decade, he will not be in that chair, and he will be sorely missed.

Kiran Jonnalagadda is a co-founder of HasGeek and is a long term enthusiast of open source, community networks and open content.