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If you've touched a computer for the first time in the early 90s – you’ll know what those two words mean.
I saw a computer for the first time in my life in high school. We had an option of taking up Economics or Computer Science. Economics was out of question...I’d taken a look at the textbook prescribed for Economics – small print, fat book, no pictures nothing. Just text, text, text. So I took the only other unknown option. The text book for comp science for high school was a slim, glossy volume. It had pictures of an abacus, a pencil sketch of a sour-looking Charles Babbage and some grainy black and white photos of huge mainframes. Cool, I thought, I can handle this. At least I can score some marks and make up for the ones I would definitely lose out whilst trying to prove some theorem, or getting the volume of a cylinder wrong. I mean I flipped through the pages. I saw BASIC, BASIC everywhere. There – it was just the basics, I thought. No big deal.
And then the classes started. Babbage baba was okay. But what the hell – I thought a computer was just a fancy calculator. Apparently no. I had to write weird little words and phrases to make it tell me if A was greater than B or B was greater than C. Seriously. What the hell. By the time the term progressed, I figured I was in the deepest shit there ever was. The only comfort was many others were wading along with me. We thought the only way out was to learn the programs by rote. At the most, the ICSE board would ask the greatest of three numbers or the least of three numbers, we reasoned. But there was a big mystery I could not solve. Granted I’m not very bright when it comes to math – but I could make out the greatest or least of three numbers just by seeing them. Why on earth would I want to break my head to make a computer tell me that?
So, as I was zoning out of these mysteries of my life, a meteor hit me. We were to do a group project. Write a big program and all that. I felt as if I was underwater. Okay – so what did they mean by big program? There was only one soul who was the Buddha in our group – completely Enlightened. If at all I have a degree today, it is because of her. Otherwise I’d be a high school dropout, slumming it out as a school ayah or something, for sure. We all turned to Archie to imbibe her knowledge. She said they wanted us to do a real-world project. Like calculating profit-loss or simple interest kind of stuff. I tell you, that was one time my heart flew out of my mouth. Profit loss program? I mean even on paper, if the math problem threw in a discount calculation, I’d space out. And they want me to write something to make a computer understand? School ayah, definitely, I thought. Wiping puke and snot off little brats.
I poured out my woes at home. Amma was concerned. Appa scolded the government for torturing children in the name of education. We could not find any solution, so we fell back on the only option left. Say Jai Sri Rama whenever I entered the computer class and hope Rama would infuse extraordinary amounts of grey matter. Well, Rama did not do that, but He showed small mercies.
For one, we all rejoiced deliriously when we came to know we need to submit only a group report. Of course there’d be a group viva and the examiner could choose anyone to ask a question. Knowing my luck, I was sure he’d pick on me. What the hell, I’d include a few more shlokas along with Jai Sri Rama and hope for the best.
The second mercy was that two of my friends were in a similar situation as I was. Of course they both are infinitely more intelligent. The three of us decided to join private classes. In our school, it was like Thrissur mela in the computer class. Maybe if we got a bit of individual attention, we could crack it, we thought.
I think my friends did well. I was still stuck in the rut. From comparing numbers, we had moved on to identifying prime numbers. The teacher probably saw my phantom face and said, ‘Don’t worry. The trick is to write down how you do it real life. That’s the all-go-rhythm. Then translate it into BASIC.’ See that was the problem. If you showed me a number, I could tell if it was prime or not only based on gut feel. I struggled. Variables and whatnot. I think they gave me a certificate out of pity.
In the project group, Archie had the brain wave for the project. She proclaimed we’d do a Poultry Farm Project. I surrendered my life at her feet and zoned out. There were quite a number of variables. There was lot of counting of eggs and chicken. There was lot of multiplying cost of one egg. There was cost price and selling price and finally profit. Archie and a few other brainy ones wrote the program.
Then came the viva. We were all crowded around the examiner who kept peering into the computer screen. I chanted Rama’s name. I had learned one other shloka, guaranteed to ward off ill omens, but I forgot the lines...another ill omen. Finally, it was all over. One or two questions were asked, and answered by Archie and a few others. I waded into pre-university.
By then, computers had reached many offices. They were kept in air-conditioned rooms where women in sweater blouses and cotton-rolls in their ears tapped away at the keyboard. We had to remove our footwear to go near a computer – the dust could wreak havoc, we were told. I swore that I’d never ever touch a computer again. Stupidest invention ever. Babbage had no other better work but to ruin the lives of future generations.
Years down the line, I was staring at the DOS prompt...and the journey never ended. I did make my peace with Babbage. Forgave him and all that. I even roamed around with a 3-inch floppy disk in my purse – it had my resume.
I eventually did a little more than write a program that said ‘Hello World’. But seriously, thank god for Windows though - the visual imagery is a blessing for people like me.
© Sumana Khan - 2015