In 2005, I lived in Johannesburg and worked as an activist to make knowledge more accessible. Between fighting copyright treaties in Geneva that would give corporations an even bigger stranglehold on our minds and finding ways to supply cheap textbooks to township schools, I talked about my work frequently. After one such event, organised by Nhlanhla Mabaso, the godfather of free and open source software in the country, I met two people who were particularly interested in my work. Their names were Angela Beesley and Erik Moller; they looked like college students, and said that they were helping to build an online encyclopaedia called Wikipedia. They were bright, warm and open - and I was hooked.
Like most people, I had already started using Wikipedia by then. And also like most people, I hadn't bothered to figure out how I could participate in it. I spent the next year making nervous, anonymous edits to the entries of obscure sci-fi writers who I thought deserved more attention. I went to a meeting in Frankfurt where Wikipedians from around the world were gathering for the very first time and was relieved to discover a bunch of people who were as socially awkward as I was. I met serious people with funny names like Notafish, SJ and Anthere; I watched Richard Stallman thoughtfully pick out bits of butter and jam from his wayward beard at breakfast.
On stage, one evening, I moderated a panel of global voices. The trajectories of two people from that panel are instructive. Ting Chen, then a chronically shy and prolific editor of the German and Chinese Wikipedias, now chairs the board of trustees of the Wikimedia Foundation. Hossein Derakhshan, at the time a prominent Iranian blogger, was subsequently arrested in Iran and sentenced to a 19-year prison term for supposedly spreading anti-state propaganda.
Back home again
As for me, I moved back to Bangalore. And forgot all about Wikipedia for a while. Moving home wasn't a conscious choice; I drifted into it automatically - I had grown up here, my parents and sister lived here. At first, there was little to like. I grew up in a city where we bought eggs from the cranky woman who reared hens two houses away from us; a city in which Zafar Futehally could ride in to town from his farmhouse in Dodda Gubbi, leave his horse in a makeshift stable in my parents' garden, walk to Brigade Road to do his shopping from Mathias & Sons, and return for lunch and a quick nap before riding back. (I realise how old this makes me seem).
I rented a flat in Cooke Town, and decided that I liked my new neighbourhood.
I reminded myself of all the reasons I knew for liking Bangalore - Koshy's, Pecos, Adiga's, Premier Bookshop, Blossom and the Alternative Law Forum. I found new reasons: 1 Shanthi Road, Gallery SKE and a magical, dimly-lit bar called Upbeat.
And then, there were the Wikipedians.
Bangalore used to bore me because I found it's middle-class boring. I can't say the same any longer. Four years and hundreds of encounters with Wikipedians later, I'm kind of excited about being home. I've been witness to some extraordinary, selfless, tireless and downright funny instances of community work, and I've seen people turn Wikipedia into something local and lovable. I've even overcome my own nervousness, and actually started editing. Perhaps it's only natural that the world's most significant repository of free knowledge would find friends here; I'm still a little surprised, and certainly very grateful.
(Achal Prabhala is a researcher and writer in Bangalore; he works on intellectual property rights in relation to medicine and knowledge, and serves on the board of the Centre for Internet & Society and on the advisory board of the Wikimedia Foundation.)
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