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Reposted with permission from Wired...mark
A Rose by Any Other Indian Name
by Manoj Joshi
3:00 a.m. Oct. 18, 2000 PDT
MUMBAI, India -- To a new generation of Indians displaced in the United States and elsewhere, keeping in touch with their families back home over email has always come with the peril of attempting to communicate in English.
But a concept called epatra.com helps Indians with a rudimentary knowledge of English converse in their native tongues.
And it's free.
In a country where 1 billion people speak 18 official languages, this was a phenomenon just waiting to happen.
The site transliterates English characters into as many as 10 Indian language fonts. For many Indian parents who would never touch a computer and wondered how to communicate in English, it's becoming a valuable tool.
It works like this: Someone in the United States without access to a Hindi keyboard can type in a message phonetically, using English fonts.
For example, "Mera naam Sharma hai" would be the phonetic English for the Hindi "My name is Sharma." Epatra converts "Mera naam Sharma hai" into Hindi characters -- and that message, in Hindi, is sent to the desired destination.
In addition to Hindi, epatra supports Marathi, Gujarati, Punjabi, Malayalam, Assamese, Bangali, Tamil, Telugu, and Kannada -- all widely used Indian languages.
Epatra, with its 300,000 registered users, is a channel in a horizontal portal called Webdunia.com, which gets an estimated 10 million page views every month.
"And these figures are growing at the rate of 30 to 40 percent every month," says epatra vice president Manas Mohan. "Some 30 percent of the users are based in the United States, 40 percent in India and the rest in Europe and elsewhere."
In India, where Internet users are predominantly in big cities, "We see in the near future the Internet penetrating small towns and villages through tools like epatra," epatra's proprietor Vinay Chhajlani said.
That's already happening.
The transliterations can be extremely useful, particularly within India itself. In the workforce, it's become an effective way for people to communicate when visiting regions where their native tongue is not spoken.
Punjabi truck drivers, with assistance from English knowing cyber café care-takers, have recently taken to sending mails to their bosses saying that they have reached their destinations.
An elderly man in Pakistan tells his friend in India - in the Urdu language written using the Gujarati script - that, "but for the fact that Pakistani women are prettier, we are all the same." Recently, at an Internet exhibition in New Delhi, the chief minister of Bihar, Laloo Prasad Yadav, registered with epatra. Though Bihar is one of the most undeveloped states in India, his gesture symbolized a hope among many that one day the Net in India will not be dominated by the sophisticated English-speaking types.
"There are one or two similar sites in China and Japan, but I would say this idea of transliteration is more relevant to India because we speak so many languages," Mohan says.
Webdunia.com even has a chat room where users can talk in about 10 Indian languages.
The National Association of Software and Service Companies has predicted that by 2003 the number of Internet users in India will be about 23 million. Vinay Chhajlani, who owns Webdunia, believes that only 40 percent of these people will be English-speaking.
"If the projections are that 6 percent of Indians will be Net users in a few years, you don't expect this growth to come from the English-speaking alone," Chhajlani says. "In fact, there are less than 6 percent in this country who understand English. I believe that very soon the number of people who don't understand English will far exceed those who can, on the Net in India."
This point of view is supported by the fact that an email site called mailjol.com -- the only other Indian site that uses the transliteration software -- supports 11 languages and has 100,000 registered users, despite only starting a few months ago.
Webdunia also has launched a unique feature to add value to its users. Epatra's Mohan uses the most improbable phrase to describe this value addition: "Snail mail."
He explains that if a user from anywhere in the world wants to send a letter to his mother who doesn't have access to the Internet, or doesn't care about the Net, he can just send an email to Webdunia, in his native tongue.
Epatra will do the transliteration, and then forward it, via regular post, to any corner in India.
"I used this feature to send a note to my mother in Bengali," Mohan said. "She thought I had learnt to write in my mother tongue finally."
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