Breadcrumbs in Cyberspace

I was initiated to the internet some time in 1996. I took to it as a duck to the water. I figured out the freebies real quick. It was a matter of time that the novelty wore off. I started concentrating on using the web in ways that resulted in better satisfaction for the time and efforts spent. Tracking down lost contacts was a favorite pastime and has remained so till date. It makes me feel like a distant disciple of Sherlock Holmes.

I was initiated to the internet some time in 1996. I took to it as a duck to the water. I figured out the freebies real quick. Even if the coffee mug did not survive the flight to Calcutta a ten dollar made it to my door step through the snail mail.

It was a matter of time that the novelty wore off. I started concentrating on using the web in ways that resulted in better satisfaction for the time and efforts spent. During the early days I was unguarded and ignorant of concepts like identity theft.

Awareness of risks came with watching movies like “The Net” that was made in 1995. My personal experiments have been largely been positive. There were some situations that left a bitter after taste, but that did not deter me from the experiments and forays to this new world. Tracking down lost contacts was a favorite pastime and has remained so till date. It makes me feel like a distant disciple of Sherlock Holmes.

The first success was tracking down Sumantra Chattarji. We had been to the same college and the last I saw of him was when he was down with jaundice and was being served glucose drinks by his fiancé. That was twelve years back. This was 1997 and I was in my first ERP implementation in Calcutta.  One evening I was waiting for my colleagues to wind up and decided to try searching for this Chattarji.

This was a somewhat rare strain of the otherwise abundant Chatterjee’s of the world, and interestingly Yahoo came up with a result. This was a woman living in Boston. I emailed a friend and asked him whether he could call up this number. The following morning there was this email from Sumantra bursting at its seams with joy and surprise. It was amazing; especially in India in 1997.

Since then I have routinely used the cyberspace to trace people in the brick and mortar world. Tracking down some is easy and uneventful.  But I got a kick out of rediscovering Shankar Acharya. The name isn’t a rare one and is ethnic to a populace spanning over half of the country. The Shankar I was interested in went to school with me. 1976 was the last time we met and this was the summer of 2006.

Google presented a number of Shankar Acharyas to choose from. The ones that did not fit the age group were easy to discard. After a day or so I realized that the economist that cropped up in each search was also not the one I was after. Then someone told me Shankar most probably lives in Delhi.

I dug up the electoral records of a Shankar that tagged him to the M.C. Primary School, Pitampura polling station. I learned that his father was 77 in 2003 and Antaryami was his grandfather. I even got names and ages of a brother and sister-in-law; but I still did not have the information needed to contact and validate whether this was the correct Shankar.

Then someone told me he was a medical doctor and I knew that I was close. I zoomed onto this “senior spinal fellow” at a Delhi hospital. A photo on the website looked like him. There was an email id that I immediately wrote to. I could not get through to the phone number so I asked a friend to also try.

He was luckier than I was and the following day I had the pleasure of breaking the news to a crowd. I have not been as lucky always. Some trails have gone cold; some have been non starters. After two years of searching I once found out my subject has passed away. Once when I searched for Sandip Samanta, Google asked me “Did you mean: sandip samantha?” Move over Fox, there is a new Samantha in town.

Cyberhelp in German Village

This could be a story on how strangers who want to do business in Germany would have to do so on German terms. This story could also be read as another example of the glory of the net. But I remember this incident as one that kindled in me a faith – on technology and on fellow human beings.

This had happened to me in 1999 and I do not know whether the situation is still the same. If it is, consider yourself forewarned. Folks in Bangalore and Bombay had warned me that I wouldn’t be able to use my laptop in Walldorf, Germany. I lugged it along, stubbornly, despite their advice. I decided to test the waters after checking into the hotel, even before going up to my room. I produced my laptop, requested for an adapter. She panicked and called for help.

The front office manager arrived and dived behind the counter to come up with a box filled with various adapters and power cords.  None of them were, however, of any use. Now, the power-input device in question comprises three parts: a power cord with a three-pin plug at one end and three small sockets at the other.  These are meant for the three pins of the AC Adapter that convert the 120-220V to the requisite 16V.  And there is another slim cord that connects the AC adapter to the laptop.

I explained to the manager that I could settle for a replacement of one, some or all the components. This made him very sad. Another guest had made a similar request a month ago. The electrical maintenance manager of the hotel had scouted all the shops in town without coming up with anything that would work.

The problem, he said, was that, in Germany, you could find adapters for use in any country for items manufactured in Germany.  But if you wanted to use a gadget from another country in Germany, you would need to bring in necessary accessories yourself.

It was a tough one all right!  Next day I tried the reception at the International Training Institute. “We do not use or support laptops in this office,” I was told. I plunged into the net and wrote to the support unit of IBM Germany. An IBM UK address responded saying that IBM Germany stocks adapters meant to be used in other countries.

I sank into deep gloom but hit the net yet again. This time I dug up the email addresses of three Heidelberg dealers of IBM products and wrote to them. In a while there were several new messages.

The subject line of one read ‘Re: Support for IBM Thinkpad’.  A dealer wanted some details. I mailed him the model number. Next morning, he asked for further details. I mailed him all the markings on the power-input unit. Things were warming up. The dealer sent me a bitmap image of a sketch he had drawn for me.  He asked me to identify which of the two would be suitable for my AC adapter.

The next mail was triumphant. He had identified the spare. Unfortunately, he didn’t have it in stock but would be able to get it on Monday. It was Thursday evening. I sent three mails telling him how useful it would be if he could arrange to deliver it by the weekend. I wouldn’t be going to office before Tuesday and wouldn’t be able to check my mail till then. I would be cut off from the rest of the world. Please help.

Monday came and went by in absolute silence. I was back in office on Tuesday. No mail from the friendly dealer, except the one he had sent on Friday telling me the cord cost 25 DM, freight extra. Back at my hotel, I had a message waiting in my room telling me to collect my “st from the front office”. A small packet that had come by post contained the object of desire along with the invoice for 25 DM. Hallelujah.

This is the section where I am supposed to enlighten you with the moral of the story. Germany equips its citizens to out in the world to do business in strange lands. Strangers who want to do business in Germany would have to do so on their terms.

But that really is not how I remember this experience. This incident kindled in me a faith; faith on technology – the internet, the emails and so on; and faith on fellow human beings in general. If you ask for help most probably people will respond.