The Many Lives and Sites of Internet in Bhubaneswar
The Cybercafé in Bhubaneswar: A Very Personal Introduction
Till about ten years back perhaps, mustard-yellow coloured STD booths were as common a part of the Indian urban ecosystem as the common crow. But, as of the middle of 2015, the apparently ever ubiquitous STD booth seems to have gone the way of the sparrow, not yet extinct, but rare enough to evoke a visceral pang of nostalgia whenever one comes across a straggling specimen. But nostalgia is perhaps the wrong word to describe the emotion of ‘missing’ a STD booth in a city like Bhubaneswar.
The emotion that such urban change evokes in one is perhaps better described by the Odia word moha-maya (which is a combination of two words — maya and moha) which can connote everything from pity to longing to irrational attachment that causes pain. For this writer, more than the STD booth, what causes the most serious pang of moha-maya are the rapidly disappearing cybercafes, although the latter have not quite evaporated so completely as the STD booth.
This might not sound like too much of a loss for those on the right side of thirty. But to some of us (belonging to what Palash Krishna Mehrotra categorised as ‘The Butterfly Generation’ in the eponymous book) inching towards our first hiccups of an early middle age, this will be just another wry reminder of mortality; all things will fade away, including yours truly.
I do not remember the first day I accessed the internet. Perhaps the experience was not very startling; I like many others in my generation, I lie between the two Indian extremes to technological innovations — the blind fascination welded with incompetence that characterises so much of the generation of the midnight’s children, and the blind acceptance of all technological innovations by the generation born in the 1990s and 2000s. I, for example, also do not remember the first time I used a telephone. But I do remember for sure, that it was at our Sailashree Vihar home (in Bhubaneswar), to which we shifted in October 1992; because, one remembers for sure that one did not have a telephone connection before then.
Similarly, I remember where I accessed the internet for the first time, although the details of that first interface escape me now. It was a place called PAN-NET (or was it PLANNET? I can’t be sure; my memory, unfortunately, is like a bamboo sieve; it holds things, but not too much and not for very long) on the edge of the IMFA park in Shahid Nagar. Within a year of this, at least three cybercafés had opened shop near my house in Sailashree Vihar in the Chandrasekharpur area in North Bhubaneswar.
The Semi-Public Internet
Thus, my first experience of accessing the internet, like the majority of Indians of my generation perhaps, was at a ‘public’ place, a cybercafé. What happened as a result, was that the idea of accessing the internet, and not only its usage, as a communal exercise, got embedded deeply inside one’s mind; one saw the internet as a public utility and its usage as public/semi-public acts.
Sasikanta Bose (name changed), a student of philosophy, feels in a similar way. He learnt to use computers and the internet in cybercafés in the Jagamohan Nagar area, near his college in Bhubaneswar. As a regular writer for webzines earlier, he could not have functioned without these. Although now he accesses the internet through a cable connection and a laptop at home, he still uses cybercafés for taking printouts and for scanning. Over the last few years, Facebook is an additional reason for him to be on the World Wide Web, and he is more comfortable accessing Facebook at home, rather than in a cybercafé. But his primary reason for accessing the net remains to access webzines and reading material on the internet, and he feels this is done much more efficiently at a cybercafé since there is an immediate monetary pressure to get the most returns on the money that one is spending. The cybercafé that he uses the most is EXCEL in Sailashree Vihar.
The Case of ‘EXCEL’
EXCEL is a cybercafé established in the year 2001. Mr. Susant Kumar Behera and Mr. Sukant Kumar Behera (two brothers) are the proprietors. It is located on the ground floor of a house in the sixth phase of Sailashree Vihar. It must be mentioned here in passing that Sailashree Vihar is a strange new locality in Bhubaneswar initially planned and constructed by the Odisha State Housing Board; strange, like a lot of other things that came into being in the 1980s. It has only two ‘phases’, phase six and phase seven; I do not think even the Housing Board knows where the other five phases have meandered off to.
EXCEL is located on a service road parallel to the main arterial road of Sailashree Vihar that divides the sixth and the seventh phases. When Excel opened, it was opened primarily as a communication center with the cybercafé and the STD-PCO booth as the mainstays of the family concern. The STD booth reached its peak in 2004 and was almost dead by 2006–2007; the increasingly ubiquitous mobile phone effectively killed the PCO business. A coin-operated system was operational till very recently; it was discontinued in 2013. With the death of the PCO booth, EXCEL moved into the mobile voucher business for pre-paid mobiles; but with only two percent commission being offered by most service providers, this is a high-turnover but low-profit business for the shop, and has not been able to replace the revenues and profits of the PCO business.
Mr. Susant Behera (Bunu bhai to most of his customers and to me as well; and he also happens to be a close friend of one my closest schoolmate’s family friend), says that when they started the cybercafé business, they were very anxious to be a ‘different’ kind of player. Most cybercafés in Bhubaneswar, then offered primarily the illicit joys of pornography as their primary attraction. This was reflected in the very design of the cybercafés; most cybercafés were designed in the form of small cabins with often curtains on their small doors, and the computer screens faced the wall. Therefore, when EXCEL opened shop, I remember it being a refreshingly new kind of cybercafé. All the monitors were placed on reverse ‘U’ shaped tables with the backs of the monitors facing the wall, and the monitor screens facing out towards everyone; there was thus, no privacy. But this completely removed the sleaze that was then associated with cybercafés and the internet, and made the cybercafé popular with new social groups using the internet, such as single young women. EXCEL was and still remains popular with young women as a node for accessing the internet.
Now EXCEL is a very different kind of space from the time I remember it from my college days (1999–2002). It was, even then, popular with the young. But now it is much more of a safe hang-out place for college going young adults and those who have newly joined the work force, with fast moving snacks items such as puffs (called ‘patties’ in Bhubaneswar) and rolls, and ice cream being sold at the shop. It is much more of tuck shop now, with national and international brands of packaged food such as Haldiram and Nestle fighting for rack space. This transformation started in 2003 itself, two years into the opening the business; but whereas earlier EXCEL was primarily a PCO booth and cybercafé where one could get something to eat, it is primary a tuck shop these days. The shop also functions as a travel agent now, and books all kinds of bus, train and flight tickets.
The cybercafé still remains important for this family business and contributes around 20% of its total profits; but this is down from an all-time high of 50–60% in 2006–07 and from 30% when the business started in 2001. In the last ten years, the capacity of the café has come down by ten computers, and now it operates with only six systems; till 2010, the café had 20 systems, and by 2012, the number had decreased to 14. A large part of the revenue is now from the ancillary services provided by the cybercafé, such as scanning and printing; data does not drive the business any longer. Even the six systems now operational in EXCEL stay unused for some parts of the day; it operates at full capacity only in the evenings. During the day, often half of the systems lie idle and unused. But the cybercafé in EXCEL has other roles in the family business; it often provides an entry into other services such as ticketing that are offered; often a customer who steps into the shop to take printouts in the cybercafé, ends up buying a recharge voucher for her pre-paid mobile connection, or picks up a family pack of ice-cream for her home.
Imagining a World without Cybercafés
Ajay Kumar Puhan (28, from Jajpur district), who works at EXCEL, feels that cybercafés in their present form will survive only for another three to four years. After that period of time they just might survive as glorified ‘printout and scanning’ cafes. He has worked for around nine years at Excel, across the last ten years, since he was 18 years old. Now he is simultaneously studying and is in the final stages of finishing his diploma in mechanical engineering. According to him, the customer profile has drastically changed over the last ten years; only those who cannot and/or do not access the internet through mobile devices come to the cybercafé for their browsing needs. Students also drive demand for the café with their needs for filling up forms. He feels that the situation is very similar in his village as well, with almost everyone who can afford a smart phone has one with an internet pack.
This decline in the cybercafé component of the family business in EXCEL is reflective of a larger churning in the business. Ten years back there were around ten cybercafés in the greater Sailashree Vihar area. Now only three survive, of which EXCEL is one. Elsewhere in Bhubaneswar, the story is a similar one; often cybercafés have added additional services such as photocopiers or have transformed into gaming stations to survive as businesses. This change has been driven by fundamental transformations in the ways in which the internet is accessed in the country and in the city. Mobile phones have become the dominant device for accessing the internet in Bhubaneswar (and in India), and this has had significant effects on cybercafés in the city. The gentrification of many parts of the city and the consequently increasing rents for commercial property, and increases in wages of attendants at the cafes, are the other reasons why cybercafés are increasingly going the way of PCO-STD booths in the city.
Now, the Semi-Private Internet
Rahul (name changed) uses EXCEL very infrequently. But when he was a student in a big engineering college four years back, he used to sometimes go to the bunch of cyber cafes dotting the area surrounding his college in South-west Bhubaneswar. His visits were infrequent; he would go to a cyber café for some project related work, to quickly check his Facebook account, or to get his fix of porn. Even when internet was available at home, the cybercafés offered a sense of freedom because of the anonymity of the interface.
There was very little regulation of the cybercafés a few years back, and one could get a cabin and access the net without any identity proof. One could have anonymous chats, browse for pornography and watch it in the semi-privacy of a cubicle, or get one’s dose of social networking sites (sometimes registered in a fake name) without the usual fears when one does these from one’s private connecting devices.
But his accessing the internet through the cybercafés was more often than not a very hesitant activity. Quite a few times there would be people making out in the next cabin; more often than not, these would be seniors or batch-mates from his college. In those days cybercafés were infamous for being places where girls and boys, often college students, with no other place to hang out in, would indulge in some heavy duty necking and petting. The owners of the cafes were aware of what was happening. But they would not interfere, as that would mean turning away customers. Raul did not have a problem with people making out in a cabin that shared the same partition as his cubicle; but, he would feel odd and get a nagging feeling as if he was intruding.
For Rahul. The semi-publicity of the cyber-café was manifested by its obverse — semi-privacy. He sometimes misses the hothouse atmosphere of the cybercafés of yore, when you could slice the sexual charge in their atmosphere with a scythe, and reap private moments in ‘public’ places. He has not searched for a cybercafé with any urgency in a long time, because he does not need them for his project work; and his smart phone answers his social networking needs. But he feels a certain moha-maya for the semi-privacies of the internet that existed outside the fully private smartphone and the laptop.
Moha in sankrit means everything from infatuation, delusion, lack of discrimination, ignorance and falling into error, that are captured in the Odia word as well. The word maya also captures all these meanings in both English and Odia. And moha is a vice, for both Shankara and Buddha. It is a vice for Odia saints such as Achyutananda Das and Arakkhita Das as well, spanning the whole pre-modern experience from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Moha-maya is a feeling, a condition that one has to overcome to arrive at true knowledge — knowledge that simultaneously provides insights into the self and the world. Hence, to be free from moha-maya one needs to stay in the moment; any moha-maya for the past therefore, is supposed to be spiritually debilitating. Therefore, the Odia relationship with the past is a complicated one. One has to honour tradition; yet, one has to be free of moha-maya of the particular, peculiar, material manifestations of the tradition, of the past. This applies as much to dead relatives, as to disappearing socio-technological forms such as the STD booth and the cyber-cafes.
With the attack on the cybercafé continuing in all these various fronts, it is highly unlikely that it will survive into the third decade of the twenty-first century. But like other attacks on communally shared, semi-public/semi-private social spaces, these attacks of ‘inevitable’ forces of technology and market need to be resisted. But there are no easy answers as to how to go about doing it. As for me, even though I have a laptop and a couple of data cards (one personal, and the other official) through which I access the internet, even when I do not have the need to scan or print, I pay a routine weekly visit to the neighbourhood cybercafé. Token gesture, I know; but when one is fighting forces that are infinitely larger than oneself, one perhaps has to resort to all kinds instruments of resistance, including the token, ‘weapons of the weak’. One cannot eliminate death, but one can definitely prolong life. Especially, when the final moha-maya is for life itself.
Sailen is a researcher, writer, editor and translator who lives and works in Bhubaneswar.
This post was originally published on the CIS website as part of the ‘Studying Internets in India’ series. It is re-published here under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license, and copyright is retained by the author.