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July 3, 1997


Write English, read Gujarati

Salil Murthy in Bombay

Can you speak your mother tongue,
Can you speak it well,
Can you speak your mother tongue,
And can you even spell?

If you are an Indian, and you answered 'no' to any one of these queries, you can take heart. For help is at hand. In your keyboard, actually.

Harsh Kumar, chief manager, information technology, Konkan Railways, has developed software that can receive vernacular words typed in English and convert them to the appropriate language in the appropriate script. And he's giving it away, free.

Says Kumar "If you've ever tried to use a Hindi keyboard you would know just how difficult it is. Even existing software like the one developed by C-DAC requires you to put a sticker on your keyboard, so in effect you are using two different keyboards. 'Shusha' eliminates all that."

"I have redefined the keyboard. Shusha is a font-based software and converts whatever you type into the script of the language of your choice," continues Kumar.

"So far I have covered the scripts of Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati (all Devanagari script) and Punjabi (Gurumukhi script). I am currently working on Bengali, which should be out in about 15 days, and then I begin work on Oriya. The South Indian language scripts are a little more complicated but I will be getting to them soon."

The 41-year-old IT professional, with a masters degree from the University of Humberside, UK, is, however, determined not to go commercial. "I do not want to make this a commercial venture. Once it is, the price does not stop going up. Piracy, greed… I don't want to contend with these ills."

But to write software for all these languages, surely he must know them pat? Kumar chuckles and explains. "During my training with the railways I was posted all over the country. So, when I was in Madras, I learnt how to speak Tamil, in Calcutta I learnt to read Bengali, in Delhi one anyway learns Punjabi, Baroda taught me Gujarati… I am not perfect in any of these languages but while writing the software for each I sat with experts and learnt more."

"Basically, all these languages have much in common. And it is not difficult to find similarities in each of them. Of course there are minor problems but they can be resolved. For example, the ja alphabet in Gujarati is very different from the ja in Hindi. In fact it is closer to the Gurumukhi ja. But these are small things. If a user comes up with a problem, I include the correction in the next version." Not unlike the Microsoft upgrade mania, really.

The software can be used on any Windows platform and comes complete with 'read_me' files and key maps. The programme can also be used to create and host Web pages in Indian languages. "For an average first-time user it should take 10 minutes to get a hang of the keys. After that he can takeoff," claims Kumar.

The IT professional, who writes Hindi poetry for a hobby, adds "I developed it primarily for myself. In office, we have to use Hindi for all official communication and I found using a Hindi keyboard very difficult. It took me about a month to develop the software, and I started using it in December '95."

The software might have remained confined to Kumar and close friends had a colleague not urged him to distribute it earlier this year. So far nearly 2,000 families in India and abroad have made use of it.

C P Thakkar, a Bombay businessman was an early user of the software. He told Rediff On The Net "I find it very convenient. My son is studying in Michigan State University and we can now communicate in our mother tongue with each other. It makes it easier to communicate with the older generation, because they often cannot speak English."

Professor P V S Rao, head of the department of computer systems and communications at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Bombay, has reviewed Kumar's software. "The aim is to see that not much detailed instructions are necessary. Kumar has used keyboard assignments for the various Hindi matras (accent symbols) so that there is a strong shape correlation. This can not only be used for the words but also in different layers of the Windows software such that you can type Hindi directly on to text."

Kumar's muse were old books about the British army in India. "They used a lot of Roman Hindi, and would actually write 'idhar aao' for 'come here'. I extended the idea to other languages too."

Want Harsh Kumar's
innovative software?

Just mail Rediff's Infotech section editors and we will send over the latest version of the programmes with installation instructions.

Bookmark this page for downloading upgrades via ftp links to be included soon.

The file for each language programme is around 40-50 kilobytes. This means they easily fit on to a floppy. Each is named differently. The Hindi/Marathi file is called Shusha after his daughters Shubashree and Shashwati. The Gujarati file is 'Vakil', he being the gentleman who encouraged Kumar to publicise his poems. And the Bengali file is named 'Shyamal' after his father-in-law.

But then the innovator laughs "Do I need a reason to name a file?"

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