Emerging from Cyberspace,
Chowk Publishes 'Imagine'
By A.H. Cemendtaur
|(L to R): Ginni Dhindsa, Safwan
Shah, Sohail Rabbani, Parvez Hoodbhoy and Ras Siddiqui
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.