Nepali Times
Fontastic Nepali


One of the things (besides affordability) that keeps computers out of reach of most Nepalis is that it is all in English. No more.

Ever since the first computer came to Nepal 32 years ago-a second generation IBM 1401-it has been the computer's language that has stymied progress. To be able to use a computer, the user must have more than a rudimentary grasp of the global lingua franca. This immediately excludes those who read and write exclusively in Nepali.

There has been a proliferation of Nepali fonts, but these only reduce the PC to a glorified typewriter with a monitor added on. Even if desktop publishers and printing presses can produce creative Nepali page layouts, the computer still interprets those Nepali letters and characters as distorted English inputs. The digital gap is widened because our computers are hardwired to English.

Nepali language users are still confounded with the "ke ho ke ho" computer. Having to switching between different Nepali fonts just adds to the confsuion.

"It's really a nuisance to convert files sent in other Nepali fonts," complains Hari Narayan Yadab of Kantipur Publications. Nepali computing cannot progress with the conventional font system. We need uniformity and if we don't do something now there could be chaos ahead.

The answer lies in the Unicode system. It not only standardises a set of fonts allowing non-Roman users to input data uniformly, but it also has room for 65,000+ characters in contrast to the ASCII system that supports a measly 255.

Documents and databases based on Unicode form an independent platform regardless of the operating system. Users can view the document in any platform without the hassle of conversion. Unicode is also central to the new internationalised domain names, which allows the internet user to have URLs in their own languages. With the help of Unicode, small linguistic communities all over the world get mainstream software in their own language instead of waiting years for special adaptations that may never come. The Devanagiri script has already made a niche in Unicode: fonts can be interchanged without problems.

Madan Puraskar Putakalaya in collaboration with United Nations Development Program and the Ministry of Science and Technology have accomplished a Font Standardisation Project by writing a Unicode-based Nepali version of the Devanagiri keyboard input system in two different versions.

Project director Amar Gurung says the new system ensures uniformity between different Nepali font faces based on the Unicode system and opens up new possibilities for Nepalis to use computers. "The Unicode-based Nepali font will allow local cultures to be expressed in digital technology," says Gurung. The project is developing a spell checker and dictionary that can be embedded with popular word processors supported by Unesco, making word processing in Nepali as easy and enjoyable as it is in English.

Pawan Chitrakar is thrilled with the results at the archives of the Madan Puraskar Pustakalaya. "The database had to be redone in Unicode-based fonts, but now the user can interact with the machine to view the result from the name of the book, author, date of publication, publisher and with sundry options."

Before we start celebrating, there is still a slight technical hiccup. Bikram Shrestha, coordinator at the Centre for Software Development and Research at Kantipur City College explains: "A Unicode-based Nepali font ensures logical and scientific data input, but this system requires a minimum of Windows 2000 or XP." Most Nepali users have only Windows98. Upgrading means expensive new hardware.

Another project engineer, Paras Pradhan, is flogging Linux. He is currently working on the Nepali distribution of Linux and believes it is "fast, stable, not necessarily shell based and is user friendly". Besides, it is also very secure compared to its counterparts. A prototype is expected to hit the market by the end of 2003 and the distribution will have a Nepali language environment that may look like the mock screen (see pic).

"A person without any knowledge of English can use the product as all the menus, command and interface would appear in Nepali. This will definitely revolutionise Nepali computing," explains Amar Gurung.

This will do away with the 'class barrier' that the need for English puts up in computing. At present computer aided data crunching is almost exclusive to the upper-reaches of banking, development and some other sectors. Nepali Devanagari in Unicode will make it possible for DDC ands VDC to use the computer for email communications, data processing and other activities they cannot currently carry out because they do not 'have' English. The possibilities open up on use of Nepali on the web. Already, is available in Devanagari, but there is little Nepali in there other than the MPP site because of Unicode non-compatibility.

The time has come to change all that, but first those at the helm of the national society and economy have to open their eyes to the brave new world that is within reach. We can change in a million different ways because Nepali Unicode will begin to close the digital divide in Nepal.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)