Close Encounters of the Free Kind!


This was the closest I could get to the man who has changed the world around us by setting us free. Here is my journal of the three days that I spent with Richard M Stallman.

Waiting at the IGI domestic airport on a cold night, I was filled with excitement. My eyes were fixed on the arrivals while awaiting the man we all have admired ever since we got attracted to the Free Software movement. Richard M Stallman, or RMS as we call him, is a saviour in these times when software ‘pirates’ are trying ever so hard to take control of our lives—through non-free and proprietary software. You can understand the excitement of meeting a person who has changed the whole world and created a new concept of brotherhood—a community.

Don’t allow Big Brother to watch you!
I asked RMS why he doesn’t carry a cell phone. He said there were several reasons for that. First, cell phones have a lot of proprietary stuff inside them. Second, he doesn’t want ‘big brother’ keeping an eye on where he is travelling. He also said that since most of the stuff on cell phones is proprietary, we don’t know if there are back doors and the companies are gathering information about us.

The reason for being a bit anxious was that RMS doesn’t carry a cell phone. Now, I was thirsty and needed water, but I couldn’t leave the spot as he might have just passed by and taken a pre-paid taxi. There was no means to contact him and let him know that I was around. I would later ask him why he didn’t carry a cell phone. Right then, my eyes searched for him and his friend Dora.

Then I caught a glimpse of the man and I felt an adrenalin rush. He was coming through a glass door, wearing his typical red T-shirt and Dora was by his side. He came out and started walking towards the taxi stand. I yelled “RMS!” He did not hear me. I yelled again and he heard. He came to me. I told him who I was and that I was there to pick him up. I made a call to the cab driver to come and pick us up.

We walked towards the main road. The driver was there and told us that it would be better if we walked to the taxi. He took the trolley from RMS, who hesitated and I said it was okay. At this point he said, “Look, that is the problem with the caste system in India—we are not even allowed to carry our own stuff.” He is a critic of the caste system in India and I learned about his concerns other than just free software, which reminded me of The White Tiger, Adiga’s award-winning book that I had just finished reading. While I tried to talk about several things, he stopped me, saying, “I can’t understand what you are saying, please speak slowly.” I controlled my excitement, explaining that I was from LINUX For You magazine. To which he responded that the name of the magazine is not okay! Well, that is something we can’t do anything about now, unfortunately.

We sat in the cab and started towards the guest house at JNU (Jawaharlal Nehru University). On the way he asked me to stop by somewhere and get some water. We found some shops open. While I was about to leave to get the water, he told me, “Make sure its not any of the Coca Cola products because we have boycotted them.” Oh! Now, it was already midnight, there was only this one shop open and RMS had put forward this condition. I didn’t know anything about the reason behind the boycott, but I decided to keep my questions for later and headed for the shop.

There I learned that they only had Coca Cola’s brand of mineral water. I returned empty handed. And that was the second time I came face to face with this man’s idealism—he’d rather choose to stay thirsty than drink a drop of Coke’s water. I then asked why he had boycotted the company. He replied that it was because the company used paramilitaries to murder union organizers at Coca Cola bottling plants in Colombia, South America. Now, who ever said that RMS was only concerned about one issue (Linus Torvalds wrote that in one of his recent blogs) proved to be absolutely wrong.

We reached the guest house, but did not find any other shops where we could get water from. At the guest house I offered to try elsewhere, but by then Dora pulled out some small water bottles from her bag and said that they could survive till morning. I bid them a good night and told them I’d pick them up the next morning for a Sun Microsystems’ event at IIT Delhi that RMS was going to be a part of. Jaijit Bhattacharya, a good friend and country director, government strategy, Sun Microsystems, was organising the event and had planned RMS’s visit to New Delhi.

The next morning we went to IIT where RMS was to inaugurate the Center for Excellence in E-Governance. There he needed to do some mail transfers, and then I realised why sometimes it could take around 24 hours to get his replies. He pulled all the mails from the server onto his small and cute Lemote laptop and then pushed the mails that he had already answered. Then he started answering the mails he had pulled down.

Most of the time he kept working on his laptop, but was always willing to talk and respond to people no matter what they asked. While inside the hall, he noticed the word ‘Open Source’ associated with the event and got a bit upset. He wanted to talk to Jaijit immediately. I connected them and then he took a promise from Jaijit that they would support the cause of free software. Even during the lamp-lighting ceremony, he said that he was doing this based on a promise from Jaijit that they would support the cause. Ah, I forgot to mention that it was around 12 pm, and RMS and Dora had not had any breakfast. Later, I would learn that he skips breakfast or even lunch if there is work. Well, I’ve never seen this kind of dedication.

After the inauguration, we had to attend another event—a panel discussion on Policies for Sustainable Absorption of ICT in Society. I got a bit worried to see Windows XP running on the laptop connected to the projector. I told the organisers that it could create some problems and if they wanted they could use my laptop, which runs Ubuntu. They showed their unwillingness to cooperate by saying that it was not possible to switch in the middle of a session. I asked them to hide the Windows XP logo hanging on the screen. I did not want RMS to be photographed speaking against the backdrop of Windows XP.

Someone conveyed that message to Jaijit who was anchoring the show, and they put an obstacle between the lens and the screen. All this time RMS was sitting on a sofa on the stage and reading a book. I thought he was not interested in the discussion, but I was surprised to see his reactions every time someone used the term ‘open source’ or ‘intellectual property’. Then he took the microphone and clarified certain doubts about the ambiguity of the term ‘intellectual property’. He also said, “This is confusion; every time someone used that term, it meant that either the person himself is confused or is trying to confuse others.” I was filled with awe at how this man could keep an ear open to what was happening around, while reading a book. Then came his speech, covering in the best possible way the definition of free software, its cause, and the issues surrounding the world of computing.

Later, when Jaijit came to speak he deliberately removed the obstacles hiding the Windows machines. RMS was obviously shocked to notice Windows running there. Jaijit tried to open an ODT file on Windows MS Word and it did not open. The message was clear—Windows can’t do a lot of basic things. Jaijit explained that alone was the sole purpose of the Windows machines there. The dramatic presentation left RMS impressed.

Then we went for a meeting, which I can’t write about here. But I trust the repercussions of that meeting will be soon known in India.

After finishing with their roles at the event, RMS and Dora wanted to buy some books and clothes, as Dora had not expected it to be so cold in Delhi. We first went to pick up some cookery books that RMS wanted, and then to Dilli Haat to buy some clothes. Now, while Dora was doing all the shopping RMS was either replying to e-mails on his laptop or reading his book. At one point I asked him what he found more difficult—dealing with the opposite sex or with proprietary software companies. He said, “Well, I don’t deal with proprietary companies, but I do deal with women… I have no interest in dealing with any proprietary companies, but I do like hanging out with her. But yes, dealing with a woman is a bit difficult.”

I recalled a discussion with one of my colleagues who once said that a country like India needed dictatorship after independence to first teach people how to be good citizens before handing them the power of democracy. I asked RMS what he thought about that. He felt that democracy was always the best option, because the one who has power may abuse it. But in a democracy you have the choice to replace the person. His reasoning was based on the question: “What is the guarantee that the dictator you bring in will do the right things only?” Then you will have no power to replace him. And things will take their own sweet time to improve.

A preacher who practices
While on the move in Delhi, we were approached by some beggars with a wounded child. While Dora gave out money, RMS refused. He said that the kid may not be really wounded, and said that they just find it easier to beg. There was a minor argument between them. He was clear that if somebody was asking for money for food, he would rather go and buy the food for them. Interestingly, at Janpath, a beggar came to us with a Euro coin. RMS took the coin and started calculating how much that meant in Indian currency, and then pulled the money out and handed it to the beggars. Well, he sure is a guy who not only preaches but also practices what he preaches!

After that we bought some more non-Coca Cola water and went for a dinner organised by Jaijit. Over dinner he told me that he also writes science fiction and booted his laptop to show me two of his science fiction stories. I was just amazed at this man. He has given us free software, he has created the GPL, and he is a sci-fiction writer as well! The stories were awesome and I became a fan immediately. Even during the dinner, which he enjoyed a lot, he would pick up his laptop and reply to some e-mail or the other. It seemed he wasn’t in a mood for (free as in…) free beer like us, and settled with some other drink. After that we returned to the guest house. He again needed the Internet connection, which wasn’t available in his room and I looked for some browsing centres while they waited in the car, but everything was closed, as it was already midnight.

The next day, RMS was going to deliver a lecture at the JNU. In the morning, we first met a few government secretaries for media, IT and science. There he was convincing them about the benefits of using free software and why it mattered to governments. We came back to JNU, and then Dora needed to do some shopping so I took her to the Janpath market (near Connaught Place in central Delhi). The next day they planned to go to Agra. And I went back to my office.

RMS was to leave Delhi on Sunday, so we went out for lunch. It was nice food—though, he didn’t like it spicy. I shared with him the science fiction I was writing on free software; he listened to the whole story and said it had potential, before making a lot of suggestions as well as helping me tighten the plot a bit. We then went to the airport and he left for Hyderabad.

I don’t know if this was a dream or reality. I got to spend three days with the man who has changed the shape of this world and has ensured that we will never become slaves to the multinationals. He has set us free, I thought, as I bid goodbye to the free man!


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