Emerging from Cyberspace, Chowk Publishes 'Imagine'
By A.H. Cemendtaur
It is often said that history is written by the victors. But for the first time in 'history' the playing field of journalism is almost leveled. Now every take on any issue can be made to reach the multitude. Everyone has a chance to write his/her own version of history. The only victory you need is that of getting a personal computer and an Internet connection.
Through Internet you can reach a wide audience in the shortest amount of time. Being buried in the trillions of web pages out there should not be a concern either. Google has made sure people will reach you if you have what people are looking for.
Two bright Pakistanis, Safwan Shah and Umair Khan, woke up early to the immense power of the Internet. Realizing the suffocating atmosphere that existed in Pakistan at that time they decided to use the Internet to give Pakistanis and other South Asians a place where all issues could be talked about.
Chowk.com, an interactive website, came into existence the night between 14 and 15 August of 1997. Soon Umair moved on to other pursuits. Chowk is presently run by Safwan Shah, Ginni Dhindsa, and Saima Shah, with the help of a number of editors.
Don't listen to Safwan Shah enumerating how many thousands of visitors Chowk gets everyday, or on an average how many times an article is read at Chowk; just visit the website and see the magic for yourself.
You can bet that if a topic relates to South Asia, it will be discussed at Chowk; there it will be torn apart, chopped down into small pieces, dissected, put under a microscope and analyzed thoroughly.
Nothing is sacred here. Whatever you may revere will definitely be ridiculed by someone else, not in a cheesy way, but in a very scholarly manner, with proper citations from profound philosophies and thick reference books.
Writing at Chowk is almost like grabbing a megaphone and start speaking at a busy intersection (Chowk) in any South Asian city. People will start to gather around you the moment you start speaking.
Some will like you, while others will have no qualms hurling stones at you. Chowk is ruthless. Sensitive writers are advised to stay out, or at least avoid reading the rejoinders posted in response to their writings.
In the non-commercial Chowk environment -- Chowk doesn't accept advertisements -- you encounter all kinds of points of view: religious, nationalist, regionalist, secular, nihilist, nonsensical and everything in between.
The first time this scribe visited the site he found it to be roamed by masked warriors-- people used exotic usernames to hide their identities and still said everything they wanted to say. The Halloween party atmosphere seems to be changing now, with more people writing under their real names.
For writers there is instant gratification in being published on Chowk. The moment your piece appears readers -- or Chowkis as they are called -- logging in from different parts of the world start sending in their responses. In instances when the response is juicier than the original piece, Chowkis just start debating the latter and the discourse takes a completely new direction.
In posting material Chowk gives amazing flexibility to its members. Posts by new members are closely monitored, but once a member is ascertained to be genuine, i.e., not a spammer, that person is put on the fast track so that any comments posted by that member go directly to the website. It is all painstakingly difficult work that the volunteer Chowk staff does day and night. The management's commitment to its cause is laudable.
And now Chowk is poised to enter the print world. 'Imagine', the first book published by Chowk will hit the market shortly. 'Imagine' is a collection of 29 articles and poems that appeared on Chowk and were either widely read or profoundly affected people's thinking.
Recently Chowk invited a select group of individuals to mark the momentous occasion of entering the print world. Among the guests were three writers whose writings are present in the Chowk anthology: Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy, an eminent thinker, activist, writer, based in Islamabad; veteran journalist Ras Siddiqui; and Sohail Rabbani, a writer based in the UK.
Speaking to the small group Ginni Dhindsa, the software wizard who built Chowk from scratch and keeps bringing innovative technologies to it, said that entering the print medium was always a goal of Chowk management. She said she is often asked if Chowk is an Indian or Pakistani website. "Chowk doesn't have a nationality", she affirmed.
In describing his experiences at Chowk, Sohail Rabbani said he was introduced to it by a friend who sent him the URL in an email message. "Visiting and interacting at Chowk I realized I am not alone; there are many others who think the way I do."
Rabbani described how once an old friend of his located Rabbani through Chowk. He credited Chowk for introducing him to a lot of new friends. "Without Chowk there was no chance for me to be here in this room with Pervez Hoodbhoy and Ras Siddiqui," he said.
Addressing the gathering Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy said that the common people of Pakistan and India were very ignorant about each other. He was implying Chowk's important role in educating the two peoples about each other. Not too distant in past when there were restrictions on movement across border and Indians and Pakistanis could not get together to exchange views, Chowk, besides a few other websites, provided a venue for the educated folks of the two rival nations to meet each other in cyberspace. It helped make Pakistanis and Indians understand each other better, probe each other's mindset, and see how the 'other' was approaching a controversial issue. The experience was an eye opener for many.
Another participant of the meeting said that, "One day, not too far in future, when a person will travel from Dhaka to Delhi, and then onwards all the way to Quetta, without stopping at any border post that person will be grateful to a number of organizations and people who would have worked hard to fashion our region that way. Chowk will feature prominently in that long list of peacemakers."
This writer believes that similar to the Indian-Pakistani disconnect a mental divide also exists between seculars and Islamists in Pakistan. You wish a forum like Chowk existed in Urdu where Maulvis and secularists would hold an honest dialog, from the privacy and security of their dwellings.
Senior journalist Ras Siddiqui commended Chowk for providing a place for South Asians to freely speak their minds. On a lighter note, he mentioned how at least in one instance Chowk has acted as a matchmaker resulting in a marriage between a California-based woman and a Lahore based man -- the couple lives happily in Lahore.
Chowk has definitely a community air to it. Having met each other through Internet, Chowk members have been holding meetings (physical) in various cities of South Asia. In the latest thaw of India-Pakistan relations many Chowk writers traveled across border and met their fellow Chowkis.
At the Chowk gathering Umair Khan praised Safwan and Ginni for carrying on the work he started with Safwan eight years ago.
Safwan Shah whose various phases of life have included being a student leader at N.E.D University, a researcher in the field of neural networks, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, and a visionary for Chowk, said that Chowk was in the business of making people uncomfortable. People transform when at Chowk they encounter viewpoints diametrically opposite to theirs.
"Most websites die out because people running them are selfish," he said. He attributed Chowk's longevity to its selflessness. Shah described Chowk's plans to publish books written by Chowk's writers.
Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui © 2004 pakistanlink.com . All Rights Reserved.