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Surfin' Hindustan


Text: Lindsay Pereira | Photograph: Jewella C Miranda
Sixty per cent of India's Internet users access the Net through cybercafés. India has more cybercafés than post offices and an estimated 200,000 cybercafés play a vital role in everyday life across the country. On the occasion of 15 years of the Internet, rediff.com takes a peek at what goes on in cybercafés around the country. We start our series with the financial capital of India

Mumbai

"Maar usko Rahul, maar."

The idea of a bloody fight within the cramped confines of the tiny Cool Friends cybercafé in Malad, a northern suburb Mumbai, makes me stop e-mailing in a hurry.

Looking up, I find four boys, possibly between 12 and 15, crowding around another 12 year old -- possibly the Rahul in question.

There is no fight. Rahul sits unsteadily on one of the uncomfortable yellow-coloured plastic chairs placed in front of all PCs at the café. He stares intently into the screen, playing what looks like a violent a game. I can't see much through the tangle of adolescent elbows and arms, but I spot some gunfire, a number of commandoes and a huge armed tank crawling forward. Hazarding a guess, I think Rahul is trying to hit the tank.

Around me, the other surfers quietly go about their business. They've been here before.

This is not how it used to be. When cybercafés were cybercafés -- way back when e-mail was still as new as takeaway pizza -- there were no adolescents playing games. There were just teenagers chatting. They chatted constantly, creating and building fragile relationships with all kinds of men and women across the globe, in all kinds of virtual chat rooms. Older men and women would e-mail sons and relatives abroad, younger ones would surreptitiously look for porn.

You also paid a lot more back then. 100 rupees an hour. 125 if the café served coffee. Hotmail or Yahoo! ruled most screens. Google was yet to be arrive.

I sigh and return to my inbox. Now, cafés like these are born and die over a few months. They charge as little as 10 bucks an hour. The money now comes not from surfing, but gaming. The PCs for surfing are old; the letters on the keyboards, worn. The gaming machines shine. They sport microphones, sub-woofers, surround sound.

Will the cybercafé survive another decade in India? Probably. Will it still be used to surf the Internet? Probably not. Rahul doesn't care. He's happy. The tank has been destroyed. He looks around at the older folk, ignores them all, and pays for another hour. And another shot of adrenaline.

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