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Autumn Flush

She was in her 96th year when she died. Until her 90th year she had corresponded with parents, siblings, children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nieces, nephews and friends in her pretty girlish handwriting: people who lived in different parts of the world.

She spent about Rs 200 a month on inland letters and aerogrammes and stamps. She lived alone, managed her own finances, had helped her husband with his business in the years gone by, read two or three novels a week, some poetry in English, Hindi/Urdu, Persian and Sindhi and at least two newspapers a day.

By her 93rd year her vision and hearing had let her down and she was confined to her bed though she was mentally alert and had a phenomenal memory until the day she died. It is one of my greatest regrets that this feisty woman hadn’t learnt to use the computer when she was about 70 or so because it would have given her so much sustenance in those last difficult years.

Visiting children and grandchildren would sometimes show her pictures and letters on their laptops. She enjoyed this experience, especially the enlarged view it gave her.

Thinking of her and of people like her I used the Special Education cell that I ran in Jadavpur University to try out a computer course for senior citizens. I have seen colourful plastic computers for primary schoolchildren and am convinced that in time children will learn to use computers before they learn to brush their teeth. For good or bad the e-world has taken over our existence or at any rate a sizeable portion of it.

Only an ageing population remains innocent of this change: some feel you cannot teach an old dog new tricks, others that their fingers are not nimble enough, others that their failing memories don’t allow them to remember the complex instructions while some are afraid they will damage a delicate instrument. None of these objections has any validity.

It seems to me, we need the computer almost more than the young ones. My 10 students between 58 and 75 years of age took to the instructions with alacrity, developed agile fingers and became au fait with the basics in no time.

Attending a computer class at the beginning is a good idea. Even after you have acquired the basics, you don’t need to invest in a computer immediately. Use a cyber cafe. They charge about Rs 10 per hour. Use the first hour or two to practise typing. You don’t need a Pitman course. Typing that old classic “the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” about 50 times takes the memory of the location of the letters to your fingers.

Keeping your fingers above the central line and reaching out for the other letters, numbers and symbols gives your fingers flexibility and confidence.

The next step is to open an e-mail account. The young people who run cafes are usually very helpful and will gladly assist you in this. Collect e-mail ids of all your favourite people and start sending them e-mails. It is a brisk and inexpensive way of communication. Your service provider comes up with new ways of communicating very frequently. If your addressee happens to be on the Internet at the same time as you, you can chat with him/her in a little box at the bottom of the screen by typing in your responses to each other. The emoticons help. Click on them and smiles, frowns, thumbs up or down, a hug, a wink are all there for you to use.

Using Skype or other international free telephony is even better. If this is done with a webcam and a microphone and speakers, you can actually see each other as well.

Many miles of land and ocean, the vagaries of the post office, the sense of isolation instantly melt away. It is a magical experience. As a nephew who encouraged me to use the computer like this put it: “It’s like being together except for the gulab jamun.”

In my next instalment, I shall take you through some of the other ways in which we can use this exciting technology to perform with minimum effort routine jobs that otherwise leave us tired and crotchety.

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