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Since 1st March, 1999
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Hitchhiking through a non-English language blog galaxy

Who would have thought that the path to rediscovering physicist Richard Feynman lay through munne ki maa' (Does anyone seriously think I am going to translate that') The unlikely url of a blogger who is evidently a geek with a sense of humour and an adhesive interest in physics and technology yields a previously undiscovered connection (mathematics and numbers) between Feynman and Narad.

www.munnekimaa.blogspot. com is “my story, of a married woman living in a corner of India, whose life revolves around her work, husband and home.” It’s one of hundreds of Hindi blogs that have taken up ether residence.

The feedback and comments are posted on munnekebapu, addressed to bhabhiji by readers who, after a nod to propriety, launch themselves into a partly facetious but wholly captivated debate. That’s how you have a Raman Kaul, from the United States, stepping in with the correct spelling and pronunciation for Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger and thinker Ludwig Wittgenstein. And that’s how Feynman and Narad connect: the bloggers use the fabled character of Narad to talk about perfect numbers — and mathematics, which was to put it mildly, dear to Feynman as well.

Sifting through ether with the help of urls that lead to squiggly characters that decorously arrange themselves into fonts of different Indian scripts is like hitchhiking through the galaxy of non-English language blogging. It’s more of an Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect discovery than an Alice and the White Rabbit adventure.

A random sample of regional blogs leaves the distinct impression that a significant lot are by technology virtuosos, wordsmiths and travellers with an opinion on everything, mining an argot from planets far from the motherlode: the work of overseas Indians.

The tsunami-sized trend of blogging in the languages native to India has been powered by content aggregators and bloggers who pour out profundities and inanities diligently in Hindi, Tamil, Bengali, Marathi, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, you name it.

Thanks to the Unicode Standard, a character encoding system (like ASCII) intended to help developers create software applications in any language in the world, multilingual bloggers can now easily use an English-alphabet keyboard to ‘write’ in the language desired. If you don’t know how, fear not. Bloggers have a Do-It-Yourself for just that.

In early 2003, Badri Seshadiri, a regional books publisher, was experimenting with Indian language web pages using Unicode fonts. “Prompted by my journalist friend, Maalan, I figured out that it was possible to blog in any of the Indian languages using Unicode fonts.” A co-founder of Cricinfo, Badri has four blogs,including two in Tamil, Thoughts in Tamil and Kirriket, a group blog on the similar sounding sport in Tamil. “I was not interested in blogging till I discovered Unicode.”

It was the technical challenge that made me start a blog in my mother tongue,” says Seshadiri. “Mine was the first blog in Tamil, I think. Though I started my blog, I didn’t know what to write subsequently. So my Tamil blogging was very intermittent. But whatever little I wrote resulted in Tamil print magazines asking me to write occasional pieces for them.”

There are no exact figures on how many people blog in a particular language but quite obviously they differ from language to language. For instance, on one Marathi aggregator, there are 300 blogs alone. Kannada blogs have been a slow starter while Hindi blogs abound. I posted a question on the Internet about the number of Indian language bloggers. “There were exactly 36,247 blogs in languages of the Indian sub-continent,” replied someone called Musiu, while Ravi dreams_03 wrote: “The popular Tamil blog portal thamizmanam. com says that it aggregates 1,461 blogs written in Tamil currently.”

The topics are as diverse as the number of bloggers but what is interesting is that many of the blogs do not necessarily restrict themselves to ethnic or regional issues. kannada-kathe is a books-and-Bangalore blog, currently leading with Grameen Bank-micro-credit-guru Mohammed Yunus’s book. Is it possible to have a Bangla blog without shonar in it' The blogger for shonarbanglablog.blogspot. com starts off apologetically thus: “My written bengali is very rusty. Please do excuse all my spelling mistakes and syntax errors.” Another Bengali blog invites us to get to know Bengali culture a little better, even as Che Guevara images dot the page as background.

“I realise the power of blogs because of this exposure to global audience. Thank you,” says one blogger in Marathi.

Blogging is definitely the digital age’s community outreach programme. Silently, like so many nudists on the late shift, their thoughts run lightly over the keyboard.

Increasingly, more bloggers, and more Indian language bloggers than their English language counterparts, have their photographs on their sites. Cultural anthropologists will have their take on this distaste for anonymity. It would also be interesting to see what they make of another eccentric trend: most bloggers earnestly follow a format demanded by one particular blog site to fill in their zodiac signs, according to both Western and the Chinese calendar. Tigers and Rats and Goats abound in blogosphere. Random sampling turns up plenty of IT-savvy bloggers cutting through language demarcations.

My interest still piqued by Munne ki maa, I write to Unmukt, apparently Munne ke bapu. The reply email carries no disclosure. Identity and gender remain fuzzy, and the mail is written in faux vernacular English, a little like Channel V’s Rosy, and points me in the direction of the baap’s other blogs. “I am glad that you liked my blog and am sure you will like Unmukt’s (husband) more (sic) however we are from a small town and blog as an ordinary citizen of India. Identities often blurs (sic) one’s thinking. We try to bring out the aspirations of common man and wish to remain same.”

The importance of expressing one’s self in idiomatic native language is apparently proving irresistible. A potential fan following is just a step closer to celebrityhood — praise from strangers and the power to provoke them. Imagine the ability of conveying that your best friend was being a ‘naeka’ to the homesick Bengali space tourist who is in freefall and poring over your blog. As chord struck, gravitas would have followed gravity in outer space.

Richard Feynman would have been tickled pink.

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