Tonight is my last night in India after one and a half extremely busy weeks that took me to Mumbai, Calcutta and Trivandrum and allowed me to meet some old and new friends in the global Free Software community. Since people often ask me what I do during the day, maybe this can give you an idea of the life of a travelling Free Software advocate.
My base of operations in Mumbai was the Homi Bhabha Center for Science Education (HBCSE) of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), one of FSFE‘s partners in the SELF Project. More specifically, the HBCSE is working on Gnowsys as a backed for the SELF platform. So obviously a good part of the time was spent discussing our common project. But since Nagarjuna also happens to be the chairman of our sister organisation FSF India, we ended up discussing many more issues in the global Free Software comunity, including the current debate around MS-OOXML vs ODF.
On Thursday last week I spoke at the HBCSE on Free Software and Science before giving an interview to CNBC, after which Nagarjuna and I had to hurry to the airport to make our way to Calcutta. At the airport we then learned that we had plenty of time because our flight ended up with more than 4 hours of delay, bringing us to Calcutta around 03:00 in the morning.
The next morning Nagarjuna and I were scheduled to speak at a meeting of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) at their session on the Open Document Format (ODF). I had the honor to open the event with my talk on European perspectives on interoperability, followed by Dr Debesh Das, Minister in Charge, Dept. of Information Technology, Government of West Bengal, who made some truly forward-looking statements.
Minister Das spoke clearly how self-reliance of countries was difficult in hardware, but quite achievable in software, and that governments should prefer to pay their own people. He highlighted his concerns about the money wasted on proprietary software and said clearly that West Bengal will start a state center on Free Software backed by the universities of the state. He also left no doubt that Open Document Format (ODF) is the only option, and that in particular also students in Universities should use only ODF in the future.
So after some more discussions with the people from industry who were attending the workshop, Nagarjuna and I made our way to a quick meeting with local Free Software advocates before heading back to the airport, because we had to get back to Mumbai Friday night.
Saturday morning my flight left Mumbai for Trivandrum, Kerala and this being my third flight within India, I could not help but notice that airline food in India generally seems vastly superior to airline food elsewhere. It actually tastes good.
The rest of Saturday and the Sunday was spent in meetings, talks and some sightseeing with the great people of the Society for Promotion of Alternative Computing and Employment (SPACE), who are currently starting to work on the migration of Keralas administration to Free Software, following the political decision to switch all of public administration.
It was especially good to meet Arun M of FSF India and James Mathew again, who I had last seen them at the GPLv3 conference in Tokyo. In fact I should use this opportunity to point out that the brochure about "Free Software Projects in Public Enterprises of Kerala" is available as PDF on the SPACE web site.
Monday started with a speech at the Technopark Kerala, where I once more spoke about Free Software and Science, followed by an intensive discussion. In the afternoon I then tried with limited success to catch up on all the email that had been piling up.
On Tuesday I spoke about Free Software to students of the the Christ Nagar HR Sec. School in Kerala, who for the first time heard that there was Free Software, and what it means for their lives. I gave the talk wearing a traditional hand-woven Indian Kurta because it has a strong connection to Indias history, in particular the struggle for independence when Mahatma Ghandi encouraged people to weave their own cloth. So there is a strong similarity to Free Software, which enables people to "weave their own code," and control their own lives. Although I usually don’t speak in high schools, I have to say that this was a pure joy. The students were extremely attentive and by the end still remembered the four freedoms.
In fact, I was told that a couple of them visited the SPACE offices the same day to get more information and some CDs with Free Software, which made me quite happy. Not that I was there to see this myself, because at the time I was already giving my second speech at the College of Engineering in Trivandrum, this time to post-graduate students and faculty staff about how Free Software relates to their choices in the professional life, and how to build a living on Free Software.
After a farewell dinner in the evening there was barely enough time on Wednesday morning it was off to the airport again, but not before paying a brief visit to a master of Kalarippayat who in the traditional way still works as a healer and teacher of this ancient martial art.
So after this I am now back at HBCSE, where everything began, and tomorrow I’ll fly back to Europe, will do some laundry and then make my way to Brussels on Sunday, since I have several meetings there next week.
Of course all of this is woefully incomplete and only shows the barest skeleton of the past 10 days, which were filled with many new impressions, including fantastic food. If you asked me for a one line summary, I’d tell you that India is a country with many cultures, and several contradictions, sometimes with a fundamentally different outlook on society, and extremely friendly and hospitable people who remain calm even in the most chaotic traffic and are not fazed by the unforseen that life always has in stow here.
Indians are also amazingly good hosts, and my gratitude goes to all who have taken care of me so well during my stay. Thank you, my friends, I hope we’ll see each other soon again.