“I was given a dictionary when I was seven, and I read it because I had nothing else to read. I read it the way you read a book.”
He did not know how to use a dictionary. His father was a class IV dropout and his mother was once completely illiterate. He is one of three children from a family of farmers in Mahiravani, near Nashik. He is the first in his family to have received complete formal education. “My parents were not financially well off, but they were determined to educate us. I originally wanted to become a painter but because I got good grades, I was sent to an engineering college,” he says. Having had schooling in Marathi medium, getting admission to the Government Polytechnic of Ahmednagar was a challenge. He was one among the minority who did not speak English, a factor that prompted some of the other students to leave the course and made him consider the same. “I was on the brink of quitting but I remembered the sacrifices my parents had made to educate me, and I could not let them go waste. When I approached a Professor with my problem, he advised me to get a dictionary. I found it to be a strange word and did not know what to do about it,” he says.
It is my proud privilege to present Mr Sunil Khandbahale who now happens to be the proud creator of digital dictionaries in 22 vernacular languages. Still he is a picture of unassuming self-assurance and eager observation. For a man who has garnered much acclaim for creating online and mobile-based dictionaries for all the officially recognized Indian languages, he looks around with some awe at the interiors of the Le Meridien hotel in the city, where he was invited to speak about his work at INK 2013. “This is the first time I have sat in a plane,” he reveals with a smile, “I was more worried about checking in and buckling my seat belt than the actual talk.”
Sunil did eventually learn its meaning and procured a dictionary, spending hours making notes and learning new words. . At the end of the year when the results were out, only four out of the sixty students had passed in all the subjects.” I had almost lost all hopes of completing my studies and becoming an engineer, as I was sure I was not one of those four students who had made it. To everyone’s surprise and most importantly my own, I had topped the class! It was at that moment I understood how strongly my success was connected to my friendship with the Dictionary. Sometimes, I feel I must thank God that I came from a non-English medium background, because of which I could realize the difficulties posed by a new language “says Sunil. The achievement led him to think that his friends who had left the course would have stood a better chance, if they also had access to a dictionary. “The dictionary was my friend, and that friendship had helped me to see this day. So I started making photocopies of my dictionary, with all my notes and observations and sharing it, but the reach was limited. I then considered printing it as a booklet but that raised a lot of new costs which I could not bear. This was in 1997, and computers were becoming popular, so I decided a digital dictionary was the way to go,” he reminisces.
Recalling his struggle with computers in a bid to learn programming Sunil said “With reference to a paper advertisement, I prepared for the entrance exam of a renowned computer institute. I was qualified too but, I was thrown out because, I had no money to pay their fees. I literally begged them. I told them that I was ready to take up even the sweeper’s job, but they didn’t listen. I took this as a challenge. I left my home, locked myself in a ten square feet room with a borrowed computer & books, and started self-learning. I’d do this for 18-20 hours a day. At one point I had to undergo a surgery because of sitting for long hours. After six months however, I had become familiar with almost all the programming languages. “Sunil finally released an online English-Marathi-English dictionary, the first of its kind. The venture met with much praise and soon Sunil was flooded with requests for more languages, which he promptly obliged, “Though my personal expertise could only be used for Marathi, Hindi and English, I soon reached out to linguists and experts in various fields for help, mostly at universities. When they saw that I wanted to create a linguistic community, they were immediately on board, asking for nothing in return.” he added.
Describing his efforts to reach out to the people, Sunil said” I wrote a dictionary program that I wanted – a software which was world’s first ever search engine made in Marathi. It went viral in no time. I started copying and sharing it on CDs but then again, how many CDs? So I decided to set-up a website where the software could be downloaded for free and it became popular. Soon I realized that mobile phones with internet had become popular. I learnt mobile programming and developed multilingual dictionaries on different platforms, but this was not enough. Over 93% of mobile phones in India were just basic phones with no capability to run any kind of application. Then, I figured out the common denominator – SMS. I set-up a SMS service called ‘Dictionary on SMS’ – which I call my inclusive innovation.”
Sunil and his team have now created dictionaries for all vernacular languages to English and vice-versa, with around 22 languages to their credit. However, he is far from done with his efforts, with his dream being a global linguistic community. Elaborating his future plans he said “I have a four-stage plan; the first is to create dictionaries for all officially recognized languages, the second to cover all vernacular languages and dialects, because there are so many, in the third stage we plan to include international languages and the final stage is to integrate all this together into a system where English is not needed as a link and users can directly translate from one language to another.”
And how many of these stages has he completed? “One so far, and it took me thirteen years,” he says with a smile, before adding, “but now things should move faster, thanks to all the help I am getting.” Sunil has built a technology enabled multilingual translation platform for 23 languages in 16 domains with extensive vocabulary of 10 million words/phrases, which is being used by 120 million users in 150 countries. Talking about reaching out to the rural areas Sunil said “Although my technology has been widely recognized and won awards but I realize that, presently it is only in hands of few. I want to give it to those who can benefit the most from it. I am finding my way to rural villages, remote areas and places where most technology has not yet reached. I am providing people in these areas with opportunities for language awareness and maybe most importantly – a window to self-confidence and hope. To give you an example, I distributed dictionary apps to few school dropouts of some villages. Surprisingly, I saw, after a month, that their vocabulary had considerably improved! While farming, grazing and feeding the cattle I watched them play around with words like cow, water, farm, goat etc. Now, my mission is to repeat this success story across the hundreds & thousands of villages.”
Sunil also runs a social organization called Global Prosperitythat was set-up to encourage rural education and development. Since it was education that transformed his life, he wants to gift the same to the underprivileged children. His brother and a colleague are helping him in this venture. His core focus is language, as it’s a huge domain. He has created as a free multilingual dictionary and as a lingual fraternity to work on different language related projects. He wants to create seamless, real-time translation platform for all the languages in the world, using which a speaker can speak in his own mother tongue, and the listener will automatically listen to it, in his own mother tongue. No linking language would be required. From not-knowing-dictionary to publicly being titled as Dictionary-Man, Word Smith & Linguistic-Enabler, he has been recognized as Green-Man, Social Entrepreneur, and Inclusive Innovator & Youth-Icon. Sunil has come a long way! Spelling out his secret of success he said “I would like to mention two things. One is – how you look at the problem at micro level and second is- how you take initiative to solve it at macro level.”