Wednesday, April 13, 2011

In the wonderland of computers

My love affair with the computer started a little over twenty years back.
IBM's PC, though a wonder child, was still in its infancy and the model that had recently entered the market in our country was called the PC AT. Though AT stood for 'advanced technology - an improvement on the earlier versions of PC XTs - with its processing power of about 8 mhz and 1 MB of memory, it would really be considered primitive by today's standards. Computers have evolved so fast in the last twenty odd years that kids toying with powerful PCs or laptops today won't give the AT a second look and would rather be amused at the word 'advanced' applied to its configuration.
Let me put this in the historical context. IBM came out with the PC in 1981. It took a few years for the PCs to reach our shore. Though the PC was a personal computer, very few were thinking of using it at home - it was too expensive ! Moreover, there was not much you could do with it at home unless you were into programming. You had to learn at least the commands of DOS ( disk operating system ). The 'user friendly' graphic user interface - GUI - ushered in by Windows 3.1 was still somewhat away and the 'mouse' was safely hidden in the corner of a room behind the cupboard ! There were some earlier versions of Windows, but I have not come across any.
Some of the foreign banks at that time were trying to introduce computers to simplify their operations in Calcutta, but were facing stiff resistance from the trade unions apprehensive of  job losses. One or two tea companies were also facing similar problems in their tea gardens in the Dooars. I was involved in negotiations with some of the trade unions to try and persuade them to accept computerisation in the interested tea gardens. I had only a vague idea of what the computers did, but was a firm believer in new technology and knew, from whatever little I had read, that computers held a great promise. In discussing with the unions I was not merely doing a job, I was doing so out of conviction.
We were then executing a ILO-UNFPA project for the welfare of the families of tea garden workers in the Dooars. Our office soon got a computer, a dot-matrix printer and a photocopier on the project's account. The computer was meant for preparing a database of the tea gardens and for processing information relating to  various  project activities. There was a catch though. Nobody knew how to operate the computer ! The desktop remained on top of the desk with its black and white monitor gazing idly at the horizon and if someone thought of switching it on, after some irritating noise and few letters flitting by on the screen, it showed a cursor blinking invitingly against the letter C in capital.
We were in a place known as Binnaguri in the middle of the Dooars, in the back of the beyond so to say, about 100 kms from Siliguri - the nearest city where one could hope to get someone who knew about PCs and programming, though programmers those days were hard to come across. I was meanwhile going through the DOS manuals which came with the PC  and trying to familiarise myself with its commands, but it did not take me far. I was yet to understand that we needed a programming language to develop our database and an interpreter or compiler on our computer for the purpose.
Our project director got in touch with a professor of physics heading the newly formed computer centre at the North Bengal University near Siliguri. He agreed to help and came over to our office one day. He told us candidly that he was new to a PC and its programming though he had some experience with mainframe computers, but he would be able to prepare a database management system with dBase III plus, a software  he had brought along in a floppy to install  in our computer. I was fascinated as I watched him make a new directory and transfer the files from the floppy. But when he started giving a brief outline about how to go about dbase programming, my attention was riveted to the book he had brought along. It was a book on dbase III plus. With his consent, I got the book photocopied, all 200 odd pages of it - thanks to the copier we got for the project, this was no problem !
Armed with the DOS manuals and the book on dbase, and with a computer at my disposal, I got neck deep into my own project - to understand the computer, its operating system and dbase III plus programming.  I would be in the computer room every day in the evening after office hours. Every one knew where I could be found in the evenings those days. Since  my bungalow was in the same compound, there was no problem about getting a cup of tea or any other beverage for that matter, to keep me going. It finally paid dividends- I created the database system for the project and the professor did not have to come again.
When I was able to generate a report for the first time after all the inputs had been given, I felt an exhilaration which I thought could be compared to the feeling of a farmer at harvest time when he watches his fully grown crop that he has so painstakingly planted and nurtured.
This was the beginning of an affair that continues, an affair that has gone through many phases - firstly, it was learning some of the languages like Basic and C and making simple programs with them till I realised that the computer world was moving too fast for an amateur like me dependent solely on books and his own methods of trial and error, then flirting with newer and newer application programmes that I could get hold of freely thanks to my subscription to PC Quest, a magazine which I think did the most to popularise computers and the internet in this country in their early stages ( by this time I had shifted to Calcutta and had my own computer, a 66 mhz 486, my costliest purchase till then i.e end 1994 ), and finally the internet and the World Wide Web.
The internet when it came, provided three options. The graphic option which is commonplace today was very expensive, the shell account which allowed text based access was only slightly less so, but there was a concessional shell option for students. I took the third one of course in the name of my son who had just been admitted to the degree course in Electronic Engineering. Incidentally, my son was taking some interest in programming those days and learning pretty fast. He has gone on to become a software professional and possibly my old 486 had some contribution to it !
In the text based internet access, you could not see the images in any website, but you could know their locations and download any if you wanted to view the same with a picture viewer or imaging software some of which you could get free from the net itself. Still surfing was not a pleasant chore. It was at this time I came across a program called 'shellsock' floated by some young men in Bangalore. I downloaded and installed it in my computer. A bit of tweaking was necessary with the Internet Explorer or Netscape and I had graphic access to the net ! And had no problems thereafter. Except that access was always slow and frequently interrupted.
I still marvel at how two youngsters who came out with the 'shellsock' beat the system. VSNL, the only provider those days and wholly Govt.controlled then, soon started lowering the access charges and though graphic access charge was still moderately high, I switched over soon.
Today of course the net is almost a lifeline. It not only helps me pay my bills, book my tickets, speak to my son in UK and write this post, it remains a vast reservoir of information which I can tap whenever I need. I was just checking with the net when Microsoft came out with Windows 3.1 and found it was in 1992. I started out on my journey into the wonderland of computers a year or so before that. I think I am one of the few oldies to do so.


  1. Lovely post, and i believe you would have made a darn good programmer , had you kept your pursuit, and definitely the reason I still program is because of you having inculcated the interest in me. I liked your example of a farmer deriving the satisfaction of seeing his harvest. Its the same reason I am still motivated to do my job everyday. Software programming gives you immense satisfaction , since it helps you create something which others can appreciate. I dont know if I told you, my latest product in microsoft finally got shipped, its an editor and entirely written by me, find it here : . Although you may not understand what exactly it is but in short it helps a person to edit a particular type of file. When I see this webpage I feel satisfied exactly as you did when you created your db3 database :)

  2. Dwiju

    It is no point in discussing this now but I will do as I have ample free time.

    I wonder if you have wasted your career by going into the tea garden. Instead, with your tenacity and perseverance, I am convinced that if you have gone into the research field or something similar , you could have produced something unique which the rest of the world could have enjoyed. You may disagree but you seem to have always bet the wrong horse. At some stage I suggest that you should write a self analysis entitled' ME and what went right or wrong'.

    In our upbringing we were always chanelled into adopting a career without any regard as to whether we liked it or not. In my case I never knew anything about engineering until I went into Sibpore. I knew a little about medicine or about homeopathy from Ma. But as you know Baba was against all these. What I really enjoyed doing was cooking Kheer while Ma was asleep, I still enjoy cooking. Perhaps I should have been a chef. If I would have mentioned it to Baba he would have died in shame. I dread to think what would have happpened to me and my bones before that. But then, I was never a rebel.

    Let me preach something which I know you will detest, do stop smoking-take it as a challenge- think of producing something which will enable you to do that before it is too late. Come to think of it only Tom Dick and Harry smoke these days, you are bigger than them.

    Enjoy your tour of Scotland.


  3. Wandering around the net when I chanced upon your blog post.

    I am one of the authors of ShellSock. Glad to hear that it was of use to you back in 1997 :-).

    Just a tiny correction, both of us are from Cochin, Kerala and not Bangalore.

    Nowadays we run a telecommunication company specializing in voice logger, ivr and call centres. I have left the original shellsock page untouched all these years. It is still accessible from

    Just thought you would like to know.