Launching a Web-Based Resource for Bengalis:
Story Behind Abasar.net
Editors’ Note: New Jersey-based Sujan DasGupta is the creator and prime mover of a North America-based web magazine, Abasar.net. This one-of-a-kind, all-Bengali webzine was conceived in 2000 (and formally launched in 2002) with a most unusual charter: Create an encyclopedic information resource for Bengali-speaking people. Unlike most webzines, it chose not to cater to literature-lovers. Instead it aimed to provide in-depth information on a wide range of topics in a format and font that would be easily understood and used by average Bengalis from all walks of life and from all geographic locations. Published bi-weekly, this webzine has now over 20,000 pages of content, and it occupies a unique position in the pantheon of accomplishments by North American Bengali immigrants. – With this foreknowledge, the editors asked Sujan DasGupta to tell the story behind Abasar.net: Why, how and when was this website launched, what experiences have been gained so far in operating this website, and what lies ahead.
Abasar (from now on, this is how I will refer to the website www.abasar.net and, sometimes its contents) was not launched with a great deal of planning or fanfare. One can start projects with a lot of pre-planning only when the processes and components (technology in this case) needed for the project have attained some degree of maturity and are readily available. One cannot say that even the technology required for Internet-based web magazines had reached any degree of maturity at the time Abasar was spawned. Around 2000 when Abasar was conceived, this type of technology was going through massive amounts of trial and error, experimentation and adjustment. Not a very happy place to be born into with a reasonable probability for survival.
How exactly did the idea of Abasar germinate? With all modesty I can say that the great Indian epic "Mahabharata" had a hand in the inception ofAbasar.
"Mahabharata, you say?” you may ask skeptically. Let me get into a little detail here. See, in the eighties (time of the MTV generation, some may recall) when all of us were getting spooked by the computer genie, “big brother” Sumit Roy (also based in New Jersey) decided that he needed to build Bengali fonts on and for computers. A font is a graphic form of the character-set of a language that a computer can assimilate, and you need a font to see, work with and print text in a given language on a computer. I was asked to make sure that the Bengali characters looked good in whatever font Sumit-da was producing. I still do not know whether I did come up to par with the assignment or how much attention Sumit-da paid to whatever I had to say, but lo, one day out popped our great Haraf font.
So, Sumit-da and I had a font, but how were we going to use it? A Haraf parser was produced for the Microsoft Word program. With that parser, text entered into the computer using an English Roman font could be transformed into Bengali Haraf-- somewhat like the magic of handkerchief-to-cat trick in Sukumar Roy's Ha-ja-ba-ra-la. I believe that this was the first instance of any impact to print Bengali script on laser printers; I may be wrong, so what. -- We started using the font and the parser to write up a storm of letters and emails, needless to say miles ahead in print quality from what one could get out of a Bengali typewriter. Wish we could say the same about the contents, but, hey, kudos came raining down. Now both of us were dabbling in Bengali writing for some time, so we Haraf-ed up a few stories and essays for some magazines. As a matter of fact, New Jersey saw the production of a whole monthly magazine using the Haraf font. Supreme Prakashani and Nirmal Book Agency, two publishing houses based in Kolkata even published a couple of books using that technology.
We drifted through another twelve or thirteen more years until I woke up one morning with an inexplicable, but nonetheless irrepressible desire to bone up on Mahabharata. A five-volume edition of Mahabharata by Kali Prasanna Sinha (a.k.a. Kali Singir Mahabharata) published by Saksar Prakashanee of Kolkata was gathering dust in the basement. I reclaimed that and got started, but the book was written in the old formal Bengali style (sadhubhasha for the informed) -- not easy reading, not by a long shot. To make matters worse, there was a veritable army of characters in the story and it was very easy to lose threads of who was doing what to whom, never mind why. I knew of a Dictionary of Mythology compiled by Sudhir Chandra Sarkar, which could have been of some help if I could have laid my hands on a volume at that time. But I could not, and that got me thinking. For starters, I wrote up a list of these characters from Mahabharata using the Microsoft Word program. Then, taking a character from the list, I scoured the book for all the information I could gather about that character and typed that in on a page. It was a great joy when I hyperlinked the name on the list to its fact page thus constructed. For some time after this great event, I made everyone I happened to run across sit through a full-scale demonstration of the miracle, and I could not stop until my social standing was in tatters. It was obvious that I could not continue my pursuit of spreading adult education in this way unless I addressed the inevitable query-- would it be possible to post this wealth of information on the characters from Mahabharata on the world-wide-web? People could then just flock to this storehouse of information of their own volition and I could go back to reestablishing my social network. This was the madness that resulted in the launch of Abasar.
The many problems of establishing a web site in Bengali started showing their ugly faces one-by- one from this point. The problems did not lie as much in building the site, the problems really lay in making the site meaningfully visible to its visitors (1). The root cause was obvious-- the font (Haraf in our case) needed to be available on the visitor's computer, otherwise the text would appear as gibberish. At that point in time, most visitors did not have the know-how about downloading and installing fonts. Many were just reluctant to stuff their computers with sundry fonts lest some of them introduced virus into their computers (which they would not). Now there came to be a way around this problem, and that was to use the technology of embedded fonts, introduced by Microsoft in the early nineties. When this technology was used to build web pages, the fonts making up a page would get downloaded quietly when a page from the site was visited and then quietly removed from the visitor's computer when the visitor moved away from the page. One requirement for the use of this technology was that the visitor needed to use Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser.
I could not get Sumit-da interested in the technology right away, so I attempted an attack myself. The technology was not as readily tamed as I had imagined, the best grade I could get for my efforts was a D+. However, my thrashing about did finally get Sumit-da’s attention. His efforts did not quite make the cut the first time, and when he did, some problems with "e" and "i" (e-kaar and i-kaar) persisted.1
"Sumit-da, why don't you try reassigning the font codes for these troublesome characters?" I asked Sumitda, not really understanding what I said. Honestly it was not hard to ask such profound questions if one was totally ignorant about fonts, as was I.
"Sujan, you are a pest," said Sumit-da, but I caught him quietly sneaking in the needed changes. Miracle of miracles, that aced the test, and I went back to posting my "Mahabharata Bestiary" on the web. In a few days, some search engines discovered the site, and in a couple of weeks our visitor-counter showed that a handful of suckers were even visiting the site. That, of course, added some fuel to my burning ambition, so I said to Sumit-da:
"How about launching a fact-based website?"
"Er, say facts about Kolkata, facts about Dhaka for starters!"
"There are a few sites in English presenting facts like that already, what's so novel about it then?"
There was probably some truth to that, but I thought that our site being in Bengali was to make the difference. Sumit-da was showing no interest, so I started doing some serious thinking on my own and started collecting some data as well. A name for the site was picked, "Abasar"-- could mean opportunity, vacation, respite, spare time, retirement... pick one. I also realized that it would need more than my solo effort to build up a web site of respectable size. I was quite sure that Sumit-da would be coming round, but more than two would be needed. It would have been great if I could have found a couple of young enthusiasts to lend us a hand, but that help was not forthcoming, so we had to stick with a few retired volunteers. When I went to register the domain name, I discovered that the ".com" moniker was taken, so I had to settle for ".net".
Now to the design of the site and its pages! I already possessed two pieces of software, Dreamweaver and Photoshop, courtesy my Mahabharataproject, so I produced a starter page -- just bare bones-- and used that as a template to generate a few more. I was already subscribing to an Internet Service Provider for server space to put Mahabharata on the web, and it was then a simple matter to upload the new pages there.
"You think people are going to visit?" asked Sumit-da.
"Why not?” I said.
"Ah, you need to make the site more catchy. Slap on some color, for goodness sake."
I knew that Sumit-da was getting interested.
"You gonna post poems and stories?" Sumit-da asked.
The memories from my days as an editor of a local magazine when I had to put up with abusive authors with rejected unsolicited trashy submissions made me shudder.
"That is a wise thought," was Sumit-da's take in that matter.
My wife Shamita Das Dasgupta, is a feminist, and for many years she had been campaigning on issues related to women's empowerment, their health, legal awareness and other related issues. When she noticed my more-than-usual erratic behavior centered on Abasar, she said, "Well, looks like you are up to something not 'no good' this time, so why not direct some of that effort towards women's issues?"
The barb did not go unnoticed, and the idea took hold. More so when I recalled from my recent trips to Kolkata that in homes with Internet connection, it was the men of the house who accessed the Net way more than the ladies. That was probably due to the fact that although the ladies knew English, they did not have as much occasion to use it as did the men, and hence the ladies felt more comfortable in using Bengali in their mode of communication. This survey was not conducted on a scientific basis; I asked a whole bunch of people and arrived at this conclusion from their responses. The Mahabharata site was then up on the Net, and that intrigued some of the ladies back there. They wanted to find out about more such Bengali sites.
Okay, that took care of what data we needed in Abasar but opened up the challenge of writing them for the web. At that time, I had the occasion to prepare a brochure on domestic abuse and related laws for a New Jersey based community service organization called Manavi, and that was readily dressed up for posting. So was material I gathered by visiting many sites on legal matters and many more on health issues which I readied by paraphrasing and translating. Deeply engaged in the work, a few months went by in a trance. I ran into Sumit-da one of those days in a neighborhood social function.
"I see the site is putting on weight, but not enough meat, it is just too dry. Bring in some entertainment," he said. There was an entertainment page, albeit lonely, devoted to riddles, so I took some offense.
"Well, you do not seem to be helping much," I retorted.
"What are you talking about? Who gave you the font at the heart of the entire enterprise?," he snapped back.
"You can always do more."
"You know, I have an idea. Why don’t we launch a section on information about Bengali movies?" Sumit-da's father was a shining presence in the Bengali film industry for a long time, so such a proposal was not surprising.
"Now where am I going to get data and who is giving me a database?"
"I'll get you data and I'll design the database for you. You just tell me if you can have the database populated?"
"Yes I can and I will," and then, as a peace offering, "Site shows a hundred hits yesterday."
"Yeah, sure. You visited ninety-nine times yourself and I was there once."
That, of course, is my Sumit-da.
Sumit-da designed the database well. Enter any year and search, and you get a list of all movies released that year, craft, cast, story line. Click on a name on the list to get a brief bio of the person, illustrated if available, filmography -- all hyperlinked appropriately. Type in the name of a movie or an actor -- get the whole nine yards. Now entering that much data was quite an undertaking. Slowly but surely the list of players exceeded three thousand and the job started getting entirely out of hand. After sinking an enormous amount of time, I could not progress beyond the time period 1932-1960. It would have been great to get some help, but who would have been willing to donate pure labor of love?
However, within a few years the number of visitors to Abasar became respectable. That was like getting a nice raise; it felt good. I kept pecking around and if I found something I considered worth paying attention, I posted it.
One day Sumitda said, "Now let us start posting entries from "Bharatkosh" (an encyclopedia in Bengali published by the Bangiya Sahitya Parisad) and then our site will really take on the identity of an encyclopedic site."
"Sounds good, but where are we going to get the permission to do this?"
"That is your problem. I will design the database for the section."
The next time I was in Kolkata, I did a lot of running around and finally got permission to use the Bharatkosh material from Professor Pabitra Sarkar, who happened to have been heading the Parisad at that time. At the same time we were singularly fortunate to lure our esteemed Shankar-da (Dr. Shankar Sen, ex-Professor, Bengal Engineering College, ex-Vice-Chancellor of Jadavpur University and ex-Minister of Power in West Bengal Government) into our crazy project. Dr. Dipak Sengupta, another professor from B.E. College, joined the effort. The data we got from Bharatkoshwas old, so updating was needed. The two professors gladly took responsibility for the work. Shankar-da had a special interest in environmental issues and he contributed most in that area. A children’s section was started with Sanakr-da’s initiative. A few others started writing for Abasar in their areas of interest – music, travel, personal essays, etc.
After I had come this far in writing this piece for ImmigrantBengalis.com, I gave a copy to Sumit-da and asked for his opinion. Sumit-da is behind the technology as well as many ideas underlying Abasar, so he was in a good position to catch errors of commission or omission in my story aboutAbasar.
"So far so good," said Sumit-da about what I had written. "But there was a lot of good work involved, you made light of them all. You did not mention that this was the first Bengali web site primarily presenting facts. The last I looked about four years back, the site had over twenty thousand pages. The count must have gone up by a fair amount. What kind of help might make the site even larger -- you said nothing about it. You did not mention how many doors you knocked on to get some help, any help -- with hardly any success. Your readers have a right to know this."
There certainly is truth to this, but then again the site is free, and it cannot pay for any help either. The biggest challenge to build a site like this is to find the appropriate information (translate it into Bengali when necessary) and then enter the information in the database. It would have simplified the job of data entry by an order of magnitude if an OCR (Optical Character Recognition) software of acceptable quality for Bengali script was available. We could have scanned printed material out of copyright restrictions, OCR-ed and then posted them. There was news that, using financial support from the Central Government, an OCR program was being developed in Indian Statistical Institute. We had no restrictions in getting that program but the Professor-in-charge asked us to wait just a little while the "i's" were getting dotted and the "t's" crossed. That day has not come yet. We know that it is a tough challenge, but still it feels bad to know that we have not yet been able to implement a Bengali OCR, and Bengali books are still being preserved on microfilms or in scanned pdf format.
We talked a lot with a professor in the Film Studies Department of Jadavpur University about a possible partnership. Shankar-da led the discussions here. The professor said many good things about our database on Bengali films and promised student help in fleshing it out and adding more material. I could not determine how sincere the offer was or how much of it was puffed up just to keep Shankar-da happy, but nothing has come out of that discussion. Mrinal Sen, the famous Bengali film maker, was the only person who clearly indicated his lack of interest in the matter, as he felt that old Bengali movies had no redeeming value and it would have been a waste of time and energy to capture their history for posterity. I may disagree with what he said, but I have to admit that he did save us time and energy in pursuing the matter any further with him.
Through Shankar-da's good will, we had had a number of discussions with the Leftist Government in West Bengal—but no closure on any. What I wrote above are just a couple of examples. The bottom line is that a lot of gas got burned and time was lost, as I did not really grasp what people were telling me. "Yes, that definitely deserves attention," "Stop by tomorrow," "O yes, we are with you," "I will try for sure," "Give me a couple of days,"-- all these are techniques to sidestep the issue. I have been living abroad for too long to remember these fine and delicate avoidance maneuvers.
Be that as it may. I now think, "What difference would it have made if Abasar never saw the light of the day? The answer: None whatsoever. We do these projects to keep ourselves busy. In our career days, our work keeps us busy. But then what? Living in isolation with nature -- banaprastha, as the Hindu Scriptures say -- has fallen out of fashion. So some of us get into gardening, some really get involved in social clubs, some sign up for painting classes, some solve all the pressing problems of the world in get-togethers -- something, anything to keep us occupied. Abasar is such an avocation, and that is about it. Nothing to regret if someone does not want to go for or go with it
Shankar-da often hums a line, "...then go it alone," from his favorite song. The line seemed to have enchanted a lot of people from Gandhiji to Shankar-da -- why don't we join that crowd as well!
(1) I am still not sure what caused this problem. A few years after this incident, established magazines such as Ajkal, Bartaman and others ran into the same problem as they started launching their web sites.
(Posted December 10, 2013)
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Comments from AS received on January 4, 2014: "Wonderful venture. Enjoyed reading the articles. Sometimes could relate them to us, making it a bit emotional too!"