#15: The early Indian internet
I don’t quite know how I landed on the website “mafatlal.co.in” on the Internet Archive. But it led me into a rabbit hole of the early days of the Internet in India.
mafatlal.co.in was one of the first domains registered with a “.in” TLD. It was owned by Miheer Mafatlal, of Mafatlal Industries, the textile barons. Here is a picture of him:
And this is how one of India’s first private and independent websites looked like:
It couldn't have a more 90s internet aesthetic if it tried. Love it.
Thankfully, a lot of this website is saved and accessible from the Internet Archive. Mafatlal not only hosted this website on his server but also allowed others to rent a space on his server. It was, in a way, the first private web hosting provider in India.
One such page hosted on this website - Internet Users Club of India caught my eye. They were a bunch of internet evangelists from the early 90s and probably one of the first people to access the web in India before it was available to the public.
But here is the most interesting thing about this club, the co-founder & chairman of this club was — Shammi Kapoor. The actor.
I could not wrap my head around this information. Maybe it was a different person with the same name? But I googled and it was the real Shammi Kapoor.
How does someone like Shammi Kapoor find himself in the thick of the internet movement in India? Turns out, he was really into tech. He owned and loved his Apple Macintosh and called himself a Mac Man.
I wanted to know more about this little internet club. These guys went around the country, carrying their Macs and dial-up modems, demoing the internet and its possibilities.
They were not only the earliest internet users but were also the self-proclaimed early gatekeepers of the Indian internet culture.
There used to be an IRC chatroom called “TalkCity” and VSNL, the only ISP at the time, was planning to make this the default IRC server for everyone but they had some concerns...
Read this excerpt from an email sent by Shammi Kapoor to the IUCI members asking them in too many words to basically be less horny on TalkCity.
They even set up a “Page of SHAME” to name and shame troublemaking Indians on the internet. Read this follow-up email from one of the other admins “The Count of CipherSpace”.
So I checked this “Page of Shame”. Here is a screenshot:
I could not find any names on the list though. What a bummer. Don't know if it was because the updates to the page weren’t archived or if they backed out of this insane idea. Most likely the latter.
I found this excerpt from an old article on Business Standard from Nov 1996 written in very troll-style prose, criticizing IUCI’s Page of Shame. It claims that the whole idea behind the page was Miheer going on an ego trip. Riveting Indian internet drama from the nineties.
I don’t think Shammiji’s rant about unruly online Indians was totally out of order though. We can be the worst people on the Internet. It was true then, it is even truer now. And Indians being cringe and horny online is a tale as old as the internet in this country itself.
For instance, I found another BBS from the same period hosted at mumbai-central.com. One of the first city-based online bulletin boards. It is again very well preserved on the Internet Archive. Just look at some of the thread titles:
This is a screenshot from the “Open Topic” board. Not all the boards on this BBS look like this, of course. Many posts are about people genuinely looking to find old friends, how to get around in the city, talking about their niche interests and hobbies, and generally being excited to be on the internet. It was really fun and nostalgic to read some of the threads there. You can read them here.
I am still very fascinated by how Shammi Kapoor was at the helm of our early internet access. He had a personal website too "junglee.org.in" and according to him, he learnt all the coding and designing himself.
This was the homepage
When I opened this website, it automatically downloaded a file called “yahoo.mov”. Against my best instincts, I opened and played the file. And indeed it was an audio track of his trademark “Yahoo!” song from the movie Junglee.
Not sure if it was meant to be downloaded or played automatically on entering the website on old web browsers, but I thought it was a cute personal touch. The website has more character and creativity than some of the personal websites today that all look alike.
Shammi Kapoor also did a bit of writing on his website and this was some time before the word “blog” was even a term.
He wrote a lot about the Kapoor family history and posted rare family pictures of the Kapoors. There were some other random posts too. For example, read this para from a very unfiltered post from him about "Librans being more accident prone". So random.
What I liked about his web presence was that it was him being unabashedly himself. Sure, some of the things Indians wrote online in the nineties will be unacceptable on today’s internet. Indian internet of that time was uncharted territory for all participating in it and it won’t be fair to judge them from the lens of the 2022 internet. It was a big experiment and everyone was figuring out in their own way how to best use the damn thing.
Here is a picture of the boys from the Bombay Computer Club. The pioneers of our internet. Make an OTT series on them already!
The person second from right is Brijendra K Syngal. He was the person responsible for setting up Internet infrastructure in India. He was the head of VSNL at the time. I found out only today while researching that he died just a few weeks ago. BBC wrote a good piece on him.
The internet of the nineties was slow and expensive and had very frequent service disruptions. Even then there were concerns about online abuse and unmoderated content (as there still are now). Indians were exposed for the first time to unrestricted access to online pornography, and some people were not happy about it.
In fact, just six months after the launch of the internet in India in 1996, there was a demonstration that was held by a women’s rights group at VSNL HQ, demanding to see the internet, so that they can burn it down. Reminds me of this scene from The IT Crowd.
I wonder what will the web archive of the 2020s look like? Most of our content is locked behind the digital walled gardens of the five or six big tech companies. All we will have for show will be the SEO hack websites stuck in a permanent redirect hell.
Thank you for reading. It was only possible to view these old and dead websites because of the work done by the people at Internet Archive. Currently, they're facing a federal lawsuit filed by the big 4 publishing houses in the USA. I feel like not enough people are talking about how important this is. The existence of Internet Archive is too vital for a free and fair internet - we can't lose them too. You can read about the lawsuit here.
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