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Sheshadri Vasu was never at ease sending Kannada e-mails transliterated into English. It was this restlessness that resulted in Baraha, the first Kannada freeware on the Net

Sheshadri Vasu: `It's not like I discovered rocket technology. I simply put together several things .' — Photo: Sampath Kumar G.P.

IF ONE does a casual survey of one's neighbourhood, one lists at least 10, "pedigreed" Kannada boys — the " n guru" types — who, with their IT degrees, chatni pudi and puliyogare gojju tucked in their suitcases, have taken off to software destinations abroad. And they all did say to their sniffling mothers: "Kagada bariteeni, amma." Their parents diligently bought PCs and acquired expertise in reading the transliterated "hegiddira?" e-mails in English. This continued till one such neighbourhood boy, Sheshadri Vasu Chandrashekaran, decided to do away with such an absurdity.

At the peak of the IT boom, when everyone was making money and furiously patenting bits and bytes, Sheshadri Vasu let slip into the market a free Kannada word procession application, Baraha, quietly from his home in New York city. Little did he know the significance of his action. He surely didn't imagine he would be responsible for a revolution of sorts.

It all started when Sheshadri Vasu felt that there was a fundamental flaw about his "hegiddira?" mails home. "It wasn't natural. My mother cannot even read English, so what's the point?" he says, in chaste Kannada of course.

When this Kannadiga went to America in 1997, he was working for Citibank on Wall Street. There wasn't too much work pressure. And after he did the usual checking out of NYC, the excitement palled. And soon he began to miss his people, home, language, everything. "I hadn't read a Kannada book in months," says Sheshadri Vasu, brought up on Chandamama-Balamitra and a great fan of the late writer, Anakru. "When someone told me that Sanjevani was available on the Net, I was rather excited. The very sight of the Kannada alphabet made my hair stand on end. Around the same time, I hit upon the Kannada website, Vishwakannada," explains Sheshadri Vasu, who doesn't allow a word of English to creep into his conversation.

To begin with, he was curious to get details on how Kannada was fed into the computer and what software was being used. So he got in touch with the editor of Vishwakannada, Pavanaja.

He discovered that the couple of very expensive Kannada software that existed (more expensive than operating systems themselves) were extremely complicated, and had no user interface. Moreover, they were targeted at computer professionals and certainly not the common man.

"I decided to write my own software," he says of the momentous decision: something that didn't occur even remotely to the thousands of other, well-heeled Kannada software engineers.

"I called my father to tell him of my decision," he says. The clueless father, Chandrashekaran, who, out of sheer love for Kannada, has been buying and circulating Kannada books among those interested for over 55 years now, was happy that his son was doing something for his beloved language.

Sheshadri Vasu got him to send Kannada grammar books and read them all religiously, every day, as he commuted by train to his workplace. "I would get back home and work feverishly at it. I remember how on weekends I wouldn't stir out." And Baraha was ready in three months.

Though Sheshadri Vasu was on Wall Street, he agonised over making his first million. "Language is not simply a tool for business, it is a cultural symbol," Aanakru had said. English is only for international relations, it doesn't serve emotional purposes. It was only through a local tongue (read competent Kannada software) that one could survive this English-speaking Bakasura called information technology, who is ever-hungry to gobble up cultures.

Sheshadri Vasu put an end to his dilemma of whether to keep it freeware or not, and was assured that Baraha should be the property of every Kannadiga. "I'm no big man. It's not like I discovered rocket technology. I simply put together several things," says the modest man.

The response to Baraha was amazing. Sheshadri Vasu still gets hundreds of e-mails from a grateful Kannada public. Every month, about 2,500 people download Baraha, and it gets used about a million times. Those who have their own Kannada websites, for instance, often come up with queries and also send requests for additional features on Baraha.

Baraha being such a popular software, one would expect Sheshadri Vasu to be a major icon, but no, not many have even caught a glimpse of this publicity-shy man. At the Vishwa Kannada Sammelana in 2000, he heard the gent next to him at lunch table telling a friend: "I hope I get to meet Sheshadri Vasu." Even so, there are the mandatory felicitations where he has been forced to accept money for his seminal work. And unfailingly, he has catechised them into sending money to the Anakru Pratishtana back in Bangalore.

Sheshadri Vasu has undoubtedly done path-breaking work. But why does Baraha continue to be used only for DTP work? "We have the technology, but people aren't coming up with requirements. I'm all set to develop an accounting package and a library management programme. But is it possible for me to go on doing everything? It's all there, people should put it to good use," he gently admonishes.

Although a beginning has been made, it will probably take years before the placid Kannadiga becomes as self-contained and as passionate as the Germans or the Chinese, who write software in their mother tongues. This ardent fan of Anakru, one of the pioneers of the Kannada movement who fought tooth and nail the various language hegemonies, has spearheaded a cyber Kannada movement. Over to his fellow Kannadigas now.

Taking on English and commerce

BARAHA IS amazing for the ways in which it breaks hegemonies of two kinds; of English and of commerce. Baraha is as competent as the best software available in English, in terms of its numerous features and applications. The latest Baraha version (there have been five releases so far), supports saving documents in the Unicode format, which means the user can transfer documents to other operating systems such as Linux as well.

It uses the standards proposed by the Karnataka Government. It also supports the Ka Ga Pa keyboard for Kannada language. The latest version also comes with a software development kit (SDK), through which developers can create Kannada, Hindi, Marathi, and Sanskrit databases.

Baraha uses the transliteration scheme, which allows the user to write any Indian language in English and later convert it to the respective language. So, it not only gave a big blow to English's hegemony, but also to other commercialised applications that existed before Baraha.

Sheshadri Vasu is poised to release Baraha 6.0, which accommodates three more South Indian languages — Tamil, Telugu, and Malayalam. So you can read Telugu in Kannada, Malayalam in Tamil, so on and so forth.

At the moment, the number of languages that Baraha supports stands at nine.

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