India circa 1995: The early internet of things

For those who remember it, 1995 was a remarkable year for India. The Narasimha Rao government just had seen off one of the country’s worst financial crises. The country was becoming part of the “global community”, ending decades of inwardness and semi-isolation.

On January 1, the country formally became a member of the World Trade Organization. The Supreme Court ruled that the airwaves belonged to the people of India, and not the government, legitimising a number of private channels that had sprung up since Zee TV started broadcasting in 1992, granting legal access to a wide variety of Western programming — from MASH to music videos. Telecom minister Sukh Ram made the first mobile phone call, to chief minister of West Bengal Jyoti Basu.

It was the year of Mani Ratnam’s Bombay and Aditya Chopra’s Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge. The year MF Hussain fell in love with Madhuri Dixit. It was a time when the superstars ruled the south. This was the year Rajinikanth’s Baashha, of Mammootty’s The King, of Mohan Babu (and Rajinikanth again) in Pedarayudu.

It was the year of Windows 95. It was also the year the internet came to India.

For digital natives — pretty much any middle-class person born after that year — it may be hard to imagine what the internet looked like back then. You had to fill out an application and submit it to the nearest VSNL office, which might be several suburbs away. In due course, a man would arrive and install a splice on your telephone cable, and connect it to your phone. He would then write your user ID and password on a piece of paper, which you would then keep next to your monitor. And then you would try to dial up to the internet.

It’s hard to explain the feeling of going online then, especially in today’s world where everything from fridges to aquariums are connected to the internet. There was a feeling of wonder, a feeling of entering “a whole new world, a new fantastic point of view”. It truly was a magic carpet ride — though the carpet does seem threadbare and strikingly garish from a 2021 perspective. Still, there was this feeling of excitement, of remarkable things about to happen.

Consider this. In 1996, the hottest thing was this new programming language called Java, which allowed users to run small programs called “applets” within their browser. Netscape Navigator was the software that was going to change the way the world worked, and the business press celebrated Netscape’s model of giving their browser away for free (so that they could sell their high-priced web servers). Microsoft, which famously ramped up the number of people working on its browser and internet software from two in 1995 to over a thousand in 1996, released Internet Explorer 3.

There were forums, Usenet groups where people discussed topics threadbare and where the banhammer was wielded swiftly and mercilessly by moderators. One could stumble into a hilarious parody of Atlas Shrugged on the Robert Jordan fan group, or find Terry Pratchett discussing the joys of shooting aliens with a double-barrelled shotgun in the videogame Doom. Or find oneself on GameFAQs, looking up strategies for dealing with The Lion King’s infamous waterfall level.

There were the personal pages, created on AngelFire or GeoCities or Tripod, full of bright colours, blinking text and pictures – the kind that would give usability guru Jakob Nielsen an aneurysm. These websites had “guestbooks” where visitors were asked to provide feedback, and visitor counters, bragging rights for popularity. And there was porn. Lots and lots of porn. And pioneering priestess Danni Ashe’s website that offered a few glossy images of top-heavy models and promised further delights upon payment of a monthly fee.

This was a pre-Google world, where Yahoo ruled, and services like AltaVista, Lycos, HotBot and Excite were where one went for information, and more often than not ended up on a magical mystery tour.

Yes, things are much better now. More people than ever are connected and online. It’s changed the way we live and work, and the net’s ubiquity has cushioned the impact of the pandemic. But somehow, if you lived through those days, thinking back to that time only gives you a feeling of something lost. Perhaps the idea of, at some point, logging out.

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Anjali Singh

Anjali Singh Born on 15 Jun 2001 an Indian author and activist from Firozabad in Uttar Pradesh. Live in New Delhi