Atul Chitnis: Man who will be remembered for doing the unexpected.


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My good friend Atul Chitnis passed away today. This post is my recollections of  him.

Begining

It seems eons ago, 1987 to be precise. I was just in to my career, I first met this lanky,  foreign looking man, who had bumped in to the office I was working in. I didn’t have much interaction with him, but he was highly charged up, moving constantly and talking excitedly. I didn’t get introduced to him then and I’d have all but forgotten the man.

Except, some months later, just out of my teens, I was already on to my first business.  The Tech community in Bangalore was very thin those days. There was a technical exhibition by computer society of India (CSI) at Ashoka Hotel. We had taken a stall for selling our first product, in our new business.

But, the stall that was  most interesting for us was by a small little company, ARB constellation, which had made a bunch of small utilities for PC (editor, calculator etc.) and they were selling it at attractively low price. I think this was perhaps that stall -  http://www.flickr.com/photos/achitnis/4487382058/lightbox/

That’s when I first got introduced to the tall man, Atul Chitnis. He went on to become one of my closest friends.

Atul was irrationally excited almost all the time. Even the earliest memories I have of him is someone who buries his face in Computers, and keeps humming out loud, but is excited by his ‘idea of the day’.

I have always known him to be holding steadfast belief in whatever he did or said. It wasn’t easy to change his mind, once he made it up. You either agreed with him, or you can argue till cows come home. I now realize he never changed in all the years I have known him.

Toolz of CiX

He had made up his mind in 1989, that the world belonged to tele-communications, especially data communications. So, he started developing a communication program. These were the days when we didn’t even have proper modems, and he was the only one I knew who had a 2400bps modem then!

I had got a 1200bps, non-error correcting modem and we used to hook up over our dial up lines and used to have funny conversations over the terminal programs. It had a lot of junk characters interspersed between readable texts. My first introduction to ‘ONLINE CHAT’!!

Later that year, he had a cohesive program and launched the first Bulletin Board Service in India, Called it CiX BBS. I was among one of the first members of CiX. The users of CIX called themselves ‘CiXer’ or ‘Chakka’!

He kept growing that BBS in terms of storage and speed of the service as well as the software that ran the service.  I still remember waiting for Fridays for the PCW (PC-World) online publications he used to put up (with permission from publication). That was the only source of international tech news in early 1990s, other than BYTE/PC-Magazine etc.! Oh, the innocence of Pre-Internet era!!

Atul was a gifted programmer in Pascal, and had acquired an impressive tool chest. He was one of the first guys I knew who bought all his software & development tools legitimately. He also had good collection of technology books. He was way ahead of his time, at least in Bangalore. An evening with him was refreshing, for the possibilities we’d animatedly discuss.

Later, we struck a deal with him to distribute his communication product ‘Cybernet’ all over India. Our target was companies that needed centralized file hosting & email (not the current kind) facilities. We sold quite a few of them too!

Atul’s Login ID was ‘Toolz’ and he is known as such to old CIX users even today.

The Guru

Fairly soon he was on to Internet and the only way to access internet those days was to use the Modems. He became ‘the guy’ to talk to regarding modems & data communications. Having started atleast 3-4 years before most of the guys in India, he knew everything about them. From best configurations, best models, to best software to use them on.

He thus became ‘The Guru’, the earliest data-comm guru in India that I can think of.

Atul always like to have one-to-many conversations. He liked educating and giving speech on subjects that held his fascination. Subjects that he felt are worth evangelizing. So, he would organize various meets that would create user communities. The earliest ones I can recall are the CIX meets we had.

He was passionate about Data-comm penetration in India and worked to influence Govt. policy whichever way he could.

Linux & BLUG

But, soon Atul took to Linux OS. He always tried out new things, and was attracted by Linux very early (perhaps 1993/94) and was fiddling with it. He went on to create a group of Linux enthusiasts and called it Bangalore-linux users group (BLUG). He would organize regular meetings, and there would be a lot of useful information always.

Atul became a full blown Linux Evangelist & consultant.  He conducted seminars, trainings and meet ups all over India. He was the go to person for Linux related issues. He also was the person behind the PC-Quest’s linux initiatives and issues. He used to release a yearly PC-Quest issue, that had a unique CD, that carried a Linux distribution with lot of tools.

He was perhaps the best known tech-evangelist for Linux in India at the time.

LINUX-Bangalore/FOSS

Atul went on to become the force behind the community efforts at organizing large scale meet/seminars. Linux Bangalore which later morphed in to FOSS.IN became a very well-known yearly event.  He kept on egging a group of people, and taking on quite a lot of load himself to organize these events, that had thousands of participants and speakers from all across the world.

He is perhaps best known today for his efforts for FOSS awareness. And perhaps for his last passion – Apple products.

The Man

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Atul was perhaps a bigger foodie than me.   He loved all types of food. He was a teetotaller just like me. And like me, he could rarely resist a good serving of desserts.

He used to smoke once upon a time, but he stopped it cold turkey one fine day, some 10+ years back, never to smoke again till his death.

The favourite outing we used to have, was a long winding dinner in some fancy restaurant with high-minded tech conversations, with him on a laptop, which was always his companion. It didn’t matter where he was, there was always something he could do on a computer, connected or un-connected. It was almost as if, he was born with an additional limb – a digital one.

He had a wry sense of humour and most of banter with him was always light hearted. However, He was also a Man with whom I could fight bitterly. When he liked something he’d totally commit and would become an unpaid evangelist. I had many disagreements with him, almost every time we met, we would argue most of the time. Most of those arguments were facile, and we enjoyed exchanging barbs & insults.

But, some arguments were very substantive and had grave implications in our lives. He was one of few folks, with whom I could confidently confide and discuss troubles (his or mine) threadbare.

Over the years, I had learnt to take his aggressive manner for what it was – A way to provoke the other person in to some sort of action.  He was right many times.  But, he could also be wrong but stubborn in some cases. It made one tear out one’s hair. You could scream at him, make fun of him, fight with him – but rarely did it make any difference! He would be set on doing whatever he thought was right, and he wouldn’t have much self-doubt. I think that trait never changed in him till his last days, even though it landed him in some trouble at times.

He was a very details oriented guy, who would think up things in detail and would want the things done with all the details attended properly. He would rarely compromise, if at all it would be forced on him by things out of his control. He wasn’t  meek hearted, who settled for a middle-ground for peace.

He was a very proud man, His pride often mistaken by some for arrogance. It also landed him in sticky situations at times. To argue with Atul, it was essential to put your point forward, and forget that you argued. It was impossible to win any argument with him. If he saw your point, he would come around to accepting it later…

But, what made him truly special was his fearless nature. He is one of the very few people I know, who rose above the regular insecurities of life and mostly led his life the way he wanted to. He found security with the community of people he knew/helped / influenced rather than the large material wealth he could collect. It was never a priority for him.

The Unexpected

Indeed, he would be most remembered for doing what was not expected of a regular person. He rose far above the little insecurities that guide most people’s lives. He tried his best to create a legacy that will outlast him. And he did leave a legacy to cherish – for his family, friends and the communities he created.

And, He’s a friend I’ll miss terribly. Good bye Atul.

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