Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91

Vol. XXVIII No. 13, October 16-31, 2018

The computer and I

Excerpts from 'One Woman's India' by Anna Varki

Page 7 image

The author in front of the computer.

On seeing a computer on my table, quite a few folks exclaim, “Oh my! You have a computer!’ Nowadays it is a common sight or, rather a necessity, as everyone is computer literate. Parents keep in touch with their children who have left the country for greener pastures via e-mail. Letter writing and waiting for letters are considered antediluvian.

Post retirement, we settled down in Madras in the 1970s. I would never have been familiar with the computer, if my older son Vijay, not bought one for my husband, an avid stamp collector, who was writing a book called Philately for the Young and asked him for an electronic typewriter, which was in vogue before the advent of the computer.

My older son, who had come on a holiday, went in search of an electronic typewriter and instead returned home with a computer, which had the added advantage of a screen! This was in the early 1990s. Though computers were in use in the USA then, there were just a couple of shops in Madras that sold them. My son arranged for someone to come and teach his father how to use the computer!

I was relieved as I would no longer be summoned to take down dictation in the midst of which the doorbell would ring and my husband’s train of thought would be disturbed! With the computer and printer, my husband could now be on his own. He could make corrections and take printouts. He was thrilled and was able to complete his book. My husband had earlier written a short biography of his father, P.M. Varki, who was the founder-principal of Union Christian College in Aiwaye, Kerala. Unfortunately, after two years, my husband had a massive stroke, which made it impossible for him to use the computer. The machine lay idle, covered with a cloth, and each time I passed it, I murmured: ‘What a waste!’

My husband was diabetic and we were in and out of the hospital several times. After we got back from the hospital and settled down, I got a good trained nurse to help me. I found I had some free time. I decided to try my hand at the computer. I couldn’t dream of selling it, as it was expensive; besides, which it was a gift, which never could be replaced.

I called my children across the seas for some suggestions, and they said: “Learn how to send an e-mail”. The very word was Greek and Latin to me. “It will be a great help as writing letters is becoming very difficult for us. We are hard-pressed for time; besides, your scrawl is becoming more and more difficult to decipher. You could also write your memoirs of the events of the last half a century, which we can read after we retire.” I asked my brother if there was any typing work to be done. “Yes, there is plenty. It would be a real help if you go through father’s column Over a Cup of Tea and sort out passages pertaining to journalism and interesting episodes from the past.”

That’s how a housewife and senior citizen, first learnt to use and enjoy a computer. Of course, there were some software packages but my interest was only in Wordstar (that is what today’s equivalent of Word was called then). Gradually, since my husband could no longer attend to correspondence with banks, insurance and other matters, I began using the computer for all these chores and found it very handy.

Since I was more or less house-bound, I found working on the computer kept me from worrying incessantly. I also got interested in watching a TV programme related to the computer on the Asianet channel. Though my knowledge was limited and much of the jargon went over my head, I could follow the multiple uses of a computer and was thoroughly fascinated.

I remember telling my grandchildren how wonderful it was going to be for them to be able to travel in space and that I would be too old to make it to the moon! Though it was not exactly true of the computer, the special headphones coupled with “virtual reality” made you feel as though you were on the moon or, for that matter anywhere else, depending on the particular software installed.

One day I got a call from my son asking me to find out the cost for installing the software for e-mail. “Broadband” was a far cry then. I used to watch an Asianet programme ‘Computalk’ by Bhaskar. At the end of the programme, he would ask viewers to feel free to ask questions, so I thought why not ask him about e-mail? I typed a letter on the computer. I told him I was more than three score and ten years of age and could use the Wordstar programme. We had a PC AT28.

A few days later, the doorbell rang and to my surprise I found Bhaskar at the door. I hadn’t met him before but recognised him as I had been watching his show on TV. He came in and checked the PC. He then asked me a few questions. He said, “Mrs. Varki, we would like you to come to our studio as we want to have you on our programme.” I was taken aback. “Why?” I asked, “I am only a novice and hardly know anything about computers.” “It is mainly to show that age is no bar. I have come across young people feeling nervous about handling a computer.”

I had never in my life been to a TV studio and was of two minds whether to go or not, especially as I had limited knowledge of computers. I had never faced a TV camera and was afraid of making a fool of myself. Bhaskar promised not to ask technical questions and also offered transport to and fro. So, I agreed.

My concept of a TV studio was totally different from what I experienced. It was a medium-sized room, acoustically sound, full of wires crisscrossing a TV camera; there were a couple of chairs and a table, and a computer set up with platform lights. Bhaskar and the director were already there. On entering the room, I was afraid of tripping on the wires. I was asked to take my seat, take it easy and just relax. “What about the time factor?” was my query.”You don’t have to worry. We will take care of it while editing.”

At the interview, I was asked specific questions.

1. “How did you come to use the computer?” (I have already explained this at length)

2. “What are the problems you encountered while using the computer?”

“Well, for a person who has passed threescore and ten (I was 76 then), though you are familiar with the commands, there is always a tendency to strike the wrong key and something bizarre comes on the screen. If you haven’t got into the habit of saving whatever you have typed, it is likely to disappear, which is frustrating. After a while, you get used to it and begin to enjoy the computer and it almost becomes indispensable.”

3. The last question was “What message do you have to give the elderly?”

“The first thing I have to say is that age is no bar provided you have the will and ability to use your hands even if you are in a wheelchair. Moreover, you are not in your dotage! If your handwriting is wobbly, then the ability to use the computer to write letters, articles, and so on, helps you save time. Even if visitors interrupt you, you can always shut down the computer and resume later! If you are housebound, life can be more pleasant and prevent you from falling into depression, which is really a problem as you age!”

Being interviewed for a TV show was the last thing I dreamt for. For me, it was a great experience and made me realise the patience required to produce a show. Many senior citizens are learning to use the computer. Grandchildren are the best teachers. I have been taught many uses of a computer, but when I forget, I have to call a youngster who solves it in a jiffy! Nowadays, thanks to talking computers, you can talk to loved ones, and see and hear them. Now in the 21st Century, with the launch of India’s lunar probe Chandrayaan, despite advanced years, we can be anywhere thanks to virtual reality programmes.


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