The room was divided into match-box like compartments, each meant for one person. It was dingy, under-ventilated, and smelled strongly of sweat. A few people waited at the entrance. A harried man in his late 20s, clutching a notebook, stopped at each cubicle to inform its occupants how much time they had left.
After 15 minutes, I was shown to a recently vacated space. The bulky and primitive white computer in front of me, with wires and cables all over the place, seemed over-sized for the small desk.
"I want to use the Net," I told the man. After a few clicks, the loud screeching sound of the dial-up modem resonated through the room. As I waited for the connection to be established, I sneaked a peek into my neighbours' screens. While the girl on my right was typing away furiously on the keyboard, the bespectacled boy on my left was ogling at pictures of skimpily clad Hollywood actresses.
Those were the days: File shot of a crowded cybercafe. With more people accessing the Net on smartphones, the crowds are thinning
I returned to my own screen. The embarrassing noise of the modem had subsided and two tiny computer icons twinkled blue-black-blue-black at the monitor's right hand corner. The Internet Explorer page stared back at me and I wondered what address I should go to.
All my friends had gone crazy over something called 'chat-rooms.' I found the whole idea very weird - how could I, sitting in this cluttered room with 10 other people, possibly be able to talk to someone in London? How could this white box answer my questions?
However, I logged into one of those chat-rooms and was almost immediately bombarded with boxes on my screen. Someone called cute_guy asked my 'asl'. I was just 12 years old at the time and a novice to the workings of the virtual world, so I nudged my neighbour (no, not the ogler).
"What does asl mean?"
"Age, Sex and Location," she replied smugly, flaunting her chat-room vocabulary.
That was the day I became part of the information revolution which has changed the world completely. All thanks to one of the cyber cafés that, 15 years ago, brought the Internet to us.
But here's a question. Have you seen many cyber cafés lately?
Present Day: 2014
If you talk about cyber cafés today, what you'll get is memories, not immediate experiences. This may sound odd, given that the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has reported that the number of Internet subscribers in India has increased from 4.5 million in 2004 to 238.71 million in December 2013.
But the fact is that smartphones with Internet on the go and 3G dongles have made cyber cafés almost unnecessary. Besides, with the recent announcement to provide WiFi in Khan Market (followed by Connaught Place), as part of the WiFi project of the New Delhi Municipal Council, the demise of cyber cafés seems imminent.
This is sad news for people like 26-year-old Samrat Sarkar, who works with Infosys in Mysore and got his first taste of the Internet at a cyber café. "My memories of cyber cafés revolve around trying to understand what 'www' meant and configuring email IDs with cool names to impress others."
But cyber cafés meant more than just being cool. For media professional Esha Arora (name changed on request), whose father had a transferable job, cyber cafés were the places from where she could keep in touch with her friends over email.
Romance was also kept alive in those little cubicles as Gitumoni Sharma, a teacher at Delhi Public School, Guwahati, remembers. "In the summer of 2008, my husband had gone to the USA and calls being expensive, he sent emails. So, on a weekend, I ventured into a cyber café. I had to wait for half an hour before I could get a seat," she laughs.
For students, cyber cafés were nothing less than libraries - minus the effort of plodding through reference books. Now, information of every kind was just a mouse click away. "We would rush to a cyber café to research our projects; to find the most obscure author we'd never read," reminisces Arora.
All those reasons to haunt cyber cafés have gone now, as businessman Mukesh Talwar can testify. Talwar, 51, set up his Internet Café in Delhi's North Campus area in 2001, with just 10 computers. Over the years, he added 17 more to cater to the increasing number of student users. "Earlier, we'd get around 80 customers per day who would drop in just to browse the Internet," he says. "Because of competition, we were forced to slash our rates from Rs. 40 per hour to Rs. 25."
A spacious room with the latest desktop computers, Talwar's café seems empty for a weekday. "Our inflow has decreased to just about 40-50 people each day," he says. "There has been a dip in our revenue by almost 40 per cent." He plans on scaling down his business in a year or two. "Smartphones and laptops are accessible to everyone, so the business of cyber cafés is fading out," he says.
Sanjay Choudhary, who owns Café 9 to 12 in student-populated area Vijay Nagar, will shut shop next month. "It is running at a loss," he says. "Three years ago when I set it up, I was making Rs. 3,000-4,000 per day. But now I only manage Rs. 1,400-1,500."
More means less
The demise of the cyber café was inevitable. The web is no longer accessible only through a computer. Today, there are smartphones, laptops and tablets.
If estimates by global research firms International Data Corporation (IDC) and Avendus are anything to go by, the number of smartphone users in India has risen from 29 million in 2012 to 67 million in 2013 and is expected to grow to 171 million by 2015.
And while smartphones are clearly the future, smart-feature phones which boast almost similar features (read basic multimedia and Internet capabilities), form a sizeable chunk of the market (78 per cent according to IDC's Asia Pacific Quarterly Mobile Phone Tracker report, released in February this year). For instance, Micromax Smarty 3.0 and Nokia Asha 501, both with touchscreen, camera, email and WiFi facilities, are available for Rs. 3,700 and Rs. 3,900 respectively.
As if the increasing availability of lower-end smart phones wasn't enough, there has been a constant price war between Indian mobile operators over data rates, resulting in cheaper tariffs.
And it doesn't stop there either. The pricing is bound to come down further with 4G connection making inroads in limited regions.
"Plus, running a cyber café has become a rather sensitive business now," adds Sanjay. It is now mandatory (at least on paper) for cyber cafés to establish the identity of each user and maintain a log-register containing details of every customer. "I think that's also one of the reasons why cyber cafés have started fading out," says Rajiv Arora, a tech-enthusiast. "Cyber cafés were used by kids, many of whom don't have id proof as such, so they've stopped coming in."
No wonder owners have been forced to move into alternate businesses. Vivek Goyal (name changed on request), who runs a cyber café in Connaught Place, intends to concentrate on his flex printing business that he had sidelined in 2009, when he was first dazzled by the Internet boom.
"Cyber cafés were probably undone by the very thing they popularised," says Samrat Sarkar. "The Yahoo messenger, emails, Orkut - you name it. People got addicted, the addiction led to personal Internet connectivity, and before you knew it, cyber cafés were a thing of the past."
But no one will forget their neighbourhood cyber café: the café that didn't serve coffee, but opened the door to the digital life.
FROM THE CHAT ROOM ROMANCE FILES
"My brother owned a cyber cafe. So it was very convenient for me to go early morning and talk to Ram, who was in the US at that time. We met at a chat-room called "We're Just Friends," though we didn't really remain just friends. This was almost 12 years ago and the cyber cafe was the only way I could see him. This continued for 4-5 years, when I finally got a Web connection at home. We have been married for seven years now and have two adorable kids, but the visits to the cyber cafe will remain etched in my memory."
-Chandani Balkrishna Dave (29), homemaker
Photo: Chandani with her husband, Ramesh (32) and kids, Riddh (5) and Dhruvi (9 months)
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From HT Brunch, August 24
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