Bengali webzine making online waves

Bengali webzine making online waves

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Somanjana Chatterjee reports about a unique NRB initiative in the United States that helps socio-culturally inclined Bengalis to bond on the worldwide web

A few vibrant young men and women once got together to indulge in a progressive initiative. They blended technology with cultural consciousness, and thus emerged one of the very first platforms for Bengali interaction on the worldwide web. It was called soc.culture.bengali. All the core members of this group were born in India, but were living in different parts of the United States like Massachusetts, Ohio, California and New Jersey. Their academic backgrounds were in engineering and sciences. Some of them were graduate students, and some professionals.

They used to write in “Banglish” – a unique combination of Bengali and English — soc.culture.bengali. The first “Bengali” novel was published, rather posted, in easy installments, in that forum. It was in “Banglish”, too. Titled “Rahuler Diary Theke”, it was written by one Indranil Dasgupta. 

A few of the group members came up with the idea of a webzine. And voila! Parabaas was born 14 years ago.

The vision was to promote Bengali language, literature and culture through the then new age medium of internet since the absence of Bengali writings, in Bengali script, was in dire need of a course correction. At the same time, they wanted the magazine to be accessible to all, not just computer-savvy folks. Parabaas was the first webzine, claims chief-editor Samir Bhattacharya, which could be read by anyone online without having to download any special font. This principle of universal reach required them at that time to actually display the pages as images. Paramita Das wrote about it in the second issue of Parabaas when several readers wanted to know about it. Later, when dynamic font became available, they moved from this process to one where the necessary font could be downloaded automatically, again, at least in principle, without the user requiring to do anything.  Dasgupta created Parabaas Axar, a Bengali word processor, and they made it available free — it can be downloaded from the web site’s home page even now. It was used for about 10 years. In the beginning, the Parabaasis received feedback from many who used it to write in Bengali in emails to their parents or grandparents back home. In fact, from the current, 48th issue of Parabaas, they have moved to the unicode platform, which would make it even easier for all to both read and write in Bengali in the electronic medium. So, in a way, the evolution of Parabaas embodies the evolution of internet as it relates to rendering Bangla script.

Bhattacharya says, “Other than making Bengali a ‘valid’ medium of communication on internet, we wanted to have fun in publishing what we felt was a good quality webzine. We had been always aware of the subjective nature of what can be considered as “good”. We did not feel that we were duty-bound, to do anything. In my opinion, an eclectic mix of genres would be preferable, and we were not concerned that we be considered to belong to a specific category, say, either a “little mag” or a “commercial mag” or whatever”.

At present, Parabaas has expanded the scope to include several sections, one for translations into English and several bilingual ones, on Rabindranath Tagore, Satyajit Ray, Buddhadeb Bose and recently added a section on poet Shakti Chattopadhyay. Parabaas is referenced more on reputed journals and publications. Some recent anthologies include large number of articles from Parabaas. It is interesting that Parabaas has been noted, without its patrons being acutely aware, by the academics—as an expression of rebellion against the hegemony of English as a lingua-franca of web very early.

On asking about interesting writings on Parabaas in recent times, Bhattacharya mentions that in terms of genre, he is personally fond of the first true Bengali crossword, along with some interesting features on linguistics and related topics.

He would like to think that their archive now contains several good articles in various categories. May be some “Selections from Parabaas” could be printed as a standalone publication. However, resource (both time and money) is an issue with them.

Then again, what about Non-residential Bengali (NRB) writers in the US?

“Quite a few of our authors are of that category—and very good ones. Again, we do not want to be confined to a specific category like NRB or RB (Residential Bengalis) —though it sounds like a cliché, it is true that we are in a global village. And that has been going on for a while. Who would know that Raj Kahini by Abanindranath Tagore was inspired by a Scandinavian folk tale. I hope when it is translated into English, the translator/publisher will not drop the original acknowledgement by Ababnindranath to that influence in the early prints of the book,” he says.

By looking into the in-depth knowledge-oriented content and professional look and feel, one wouldn’t know that Parabaas did not even have a mode of regular financing until they started the online Book Store recently. Initially, they used to fund it out of their own pockets. The revenue generated from the bookstore goes completely to publish Parabaas. Many help them with donations, which is very inspiring. They have started doing some charity work out of these.  A click on the “Friends of Parabaas” button would give an idea about it.

It’s fascinating how this Bengali webzine has been functioning for 14 years just on the basis of committed volunteer work with team-members who haven’t even met face-to-face. There are dedicated group of illustrators, who had been helping them from the beginning. Also, there are many core Parabaasis who help from selection of articles to developing and writing the codes. And all their service is on a voluntary basis.

Parabaasis are hopeful that if they get some more volunteers willing to help, they can try several ways to further enrich and make the webzine more interesting, and again, it is not just for American readers but the world at large — but they are in a way, constrained by lack of both time and resources. 

We wish success and outreach for this wonderful online magazine that strives to keep the Bengali ‘adda’ alive on the worldwide web

About the author

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Somanjana Chatterjee

Somanjan Chatterjee is San Francisco based consulting editor