Who is This Mysterious Chowk Staff?
By Sohail Rabbani (remember he interacts as SR!)
August 15, 2003
It’s a Chowk tradition that the regulars post felicitations to commemorate the webzine’s “birth" on the fourteenth day of August. This sixth birthday is no different. I am not going to add to the praise (or critique) of Chowk. Others have done, and will do, a far better job of it.
This piece is meant to acknowledge the founders and principals of Chowk who have built and maintained the website for the past six years.
Of the thousand’s of surfers who browse these pages, relatively few know much about the dedicated men and women who stand behind this enterprise. These people take great pains to not promote themselves (as most web publishers do). They remain behind the nonchalant pseudonym: “ChowkStaff." Who is this ChowkStaff…?
It is commonly said that Chowk is maintained by a dedicated group of volunteers. Earlier on in the history of Chowk the following names were mentioned as the core team that made Chowk happen: Umair A. Khan, Safwan Shah, Ginni Dhindsa, Radhika Nagpal, Wasiq Bokhari, Saeed Jaffer, Asad Khan, Adnan Lawai, Saima Shah, and Shahid Mahmood. There were a few other names as well.
All the others have no doubt played very crucial roles, but a small core team has nurtured and grown Chowk constantly over these years. They are Safwan Shah, Ginni Dhindsa and Saima Shah. He is the visionary entrepreneur, Ginni is the architect and builder and Saima the editorial chief.
As history goes, after reading something Umair Khan had written on a website a fellow techie from Silicon Valley, Safwan Shah, approached him in 1996, with the idea of an Internet based newsletter.
This is what journalist Sadanand Dhume, wrote on the Little India website, describing the origin of Chowk, “After trading emails for about ten days, the two strangers met at a health-food restaurant to discuss the proposed site. The blueprint for one of South Asia’s hottest outposts on the Internet emerged over a meal of baked potatoes and fat-free yogurt."
“It goes to show the unpredictable results of exposing desis to health food", Dhume quotes Umair Khan as having said.
Umair left Chowk after the first couple of years and was succeeded by Saima Shah.
Chowk’s co-founder, Safwan puts it like this: “There are those who have gone but we know they will return ... some day ... Umair was a great motivator and doer, until his entrepreneurship ambitions led him in a different direction a few years ago. He does remain a co-founder and an integral part of the history of Chowk."
Saima Shah, hardly needs any introduction as she is probably the most visible member of the core group and has been a frequent participant on Chowk since 1997.
“… [M]y happiest moments are spent reading articles, promoting Chowk, editorial strategy, new features and the one thousand and two maintenance demands of Chowk." She describes herself as, “…[a]n MBA by training, professional by lack of choice, writer for love, and Chowk Editor by vocation."
Saima has been actively involved with Chowk for the last six years. She recalls how it all began. “…In 1997, one lazy afternoon in Karachi, I got an email saying, check out this link. This link happened to be the first prototype of Chowk. I was asked to write something to launch the site. My very first article for Chowk was, ‘Say Something--Let’s Talk'. I promoted Chowk in Karachi, writing articles, interacting in the debates and screening for material. By 2000, I took over most of the editorial work and responsibility".
Besides giving her time and energy to Chowk she is a mother and “…a very active member of a deeply bonded extended family of friends and relatives." Her other intellectual interest is in “cooperative forms of economic organization and alternative forms of resource allocation". Without her input and dedication Chowk could not have grown as it has.
From among the first group at Chowk, Wasiq Bokhari comes to mind. Another absolutely brilliant fellow like Umair. Nobel Prize material both. Wasiq, besides being one of the bright lights of early Chowk is a physicist. In 1995 he added to his credits the discovery of the Top Quark – a significant milestone in Modern Physics. Take note Stockholm.
Most of these guys are MIT graduates. Another friend from MIT, Radhika Nagpal, a computer scientist by profession and artist by choice, created the design and image for the website.
Safwan Shah credits her thus: “Radhika made the artwork that illustrated Chowk ... the originality and power of her imagery will remain Chowk, forever."
Then there were some other volunteers who helped the core team and their contributions were surely important but I do not know much about them. According to the core team, there are many people who have contributed to its vision.
Safwan, the real publisher of Chowk, mentions in a recent email, “There is a site that lists the history of Chowk - true or not, it is imprinted on the web…"
“The origin is accurate ... Umair coined the word Chowk. I wanted to call it InterAct! Ginni built the first engine that became Chowk. I simply catalyzed it all."
I’ve had the pleasure to meet Safwan twice. The first time we met, for a few hours, in Karachi during a visit to Pakistan in 1999. We had communicated electronically in the fall of 1997, shortly after I discovered Chowk and a year later as our visits to Karachi overlapped, we met up in person.
I was expecting a natty dresser with a sheik, if not pompous, disposition. He was a Silicon Valley dot.com entrepreneur after all, I had thought. However, to my relief and delight, the man I met turned out to be a salt-of-the-Earth kind with no false airs or chips on his shoulder. I had been dead wrong in my preconceived notions. If you saw him walk down the street, you’d think he was just an ordinary guy who lived up the block from you. However, this guy is anything but ordinary.
His accomplishments are many which I cannot here recount. (I’m keeping it ‘low profile.’) A brilliant, dynamic and successful entrepreneur, he is oozing positive energy.
I was curious to know if he had any previous experience as a publisher. No he did not, he replied. Except that as a student activist back in Karachi during the dark ages of the 1980s. “In the days of yore, when we were free and brave, I do admit spending nights at the only printing press in Karachi, which was willing to print flyers to condemn what Zia was doing to ruin our lives. Deep in the bowels of Nazimabad, was this man I recall as ‘Habu’ who smoked Capstan cigarettes and always had one refrain, in English - “everyone should be free to read, write, think and speak. Any society that imposes censorship and jails people if they speak freely is doomed." Simple stuff. But then simple things are what it is all about."
Last fall I got to spend a leisurely night on the town with him while he was visiting my city on business. We spoke of everything under the sun and the more I learnt about the man the more my respect and appreciation for him grew.
I was fascinated to learn that he and Ginni make up as diversely representative a couple as can possibly be from South Asia. The rich diversity of their backgrounds is demonstrated by the many South Asian regions and languages that their family members can claim as their own. Pushto, Hindi-Urdu, Punjabi, Tamil, Bengali and some other (I forget) are languages that one would hear spoken if their two families were to congregate. They are a truly representative duo who can lay claim to the whole of South Asia as their native land. This strikes me as extremely apt for the publishers of a website that attracts a diverse population, the majority of it from South Asia.
Ill at ease with the idea of being dragged out in the lime light, Safwan is quick to underplay any credit given to the couple’s personal roles in creating Chowk.com, “…Personal details ought to remain personal", he insists. “Chowk is not about ‘us’ it is about ‘you, he, her, them, they, were and will be’… what matters is results not people, consequences not actions, work product not worker…"
“The people behind Chowk realize that they must remain appreciated not glorified, because they are smaller than Chowk. They derive their strength from their absence and silence - like pillars of a strong edifice. The only way we can function is by being left to function…"
It wasn’t easy to convince him that an introductory piece was long overdue. I promised to keep it brief, simple and ‘low profile’. We compromised.
Ginni Dhindsa is perhaps the least visible yet the most essential person behind Chowk.
She is the software architect, engineer, programmer and code writer who crosses all the T’s and dots all the i’s so that it can all work. She was born in Jallandhar, raised in Calcutta and educated in the US. She co-founded Chowk and has been “… guiding and executing the vision, launching new programs, managing communication, website, technology and infrastructure."
Safwan goes on to add, “Ginni has spent over six and a half years building, fixing, tweaking, upgrading, evolving, adding, guiding and administering Chowk. Every single day and night of these years she has worked on some section or the other. In late 1996 we started discussing Chowk and on August 14, 1997 it was born." In addition to these accomplishments she is also a devoted and loving mother of two.
Early on in the first year of Chowk Saima Shah wrote a small but memorable piece titled Say Something, Lets Talk. That article, the Chowk insiders believe, set the pace and pattern of all the activity that followed.
“I want to ask whether you over there ever feel like the rat race is making you a rat? That the shininess of your souls is something you don’t think about anymore? I want to speak in fanciful terms and basic terms and terms of negotiation. I want to postulate and pontificate. I want to debate and tear your ideas to bits and have you pull mine to bits. I want to say what I want; and I want to hear what you have to say. I want to learn from you and grow." These seven sentences, Safwan thinks, describe the essence of Chowk.
He goes on to say, “Saima remains the passionate idealist who saw people come and go with lofty promises and diminishing idealism. Her idealism remains unflinching. She was there on day one, she is there today. More determined than ever to see the next 20 years of Chowk."
When Safwan talks about Chowk, you can see a shimmer in his transfixed eyes. He is deeply passionate and though he would never say it, I see the love he feels for Chowk as if it were their baby. Their flesh and blood. But I believe he is in denial.
“We don’t see it as our project…" he claims. “Chowk is a function of its environment and it is the environment that will dictate where it will go. The colliding ideas and identities will dictate Chowk’s trajectory. The InterActions and their frailty and otherwise will dictate the future of Chowk. We will simply strive to sustain the existence of Chowk. We will simply wait for that great idea to emerge from within Chowk --- that one idea that will change our future and make our past worthwhile."
At this point he pauses for a moment and says that if the above seems too unrealistic then at least, “Chowk is going where no one could have gone before. Chowk is perpetually archiving the collision of ideas and identities of an entire generation. The output of Chowk will become the input of the new entrants in Chowk. The level of thinking, feeling, expressing and propagating is being raised by Chowk. Chowk is educating, cajoling, challenging and questioning a cross-section of an entire sub-continent. Chowk is being a Chowk. Chowk is chipping away at the status-quo."
You can detect the pride of a parent in his words. A parent who recounts the achievements of his child.
“Chowk will matter in the future because Chowk will have written some of that future. Chowk will matter because it is always current and Chowk’s present is our younger generations baseline of thinking - because they will start where we have left off. Do you see my point? If we will matter, Chowk will matter. Chowk is you and I.
Chowk is the only site for over 1 Billion people that is entirely bias free. Chowk has not succumbed to promoting sex, sports and speculation. Chowk has become better with time. Chowk is even more idealistic then it was 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 year ago."
I have looked at the Chowk phenomenon and it seems to me that even though the founders deny it, their product has much to do with them and who they are than with anything or anyone else. They want to tell us that they are mere facilitators, disclaiming all credit, but I believe it is their passion and devotion that has made Chowk what it is today. If it was just the participants who were shaping Chowk why couldn’t they mould other sites on the web in like manner. No sir, it is the spirit and dedication of the ChowkStaff that was the critical ingredient. Without them there could have been no Chowk.
''The future of Chowk is simple. More of the same. More channels for discourse, discussion and distribution. The Chowk brand has enough oomph to sustain a television channel, a publishing initiative, and more....'' Chowk Staff