On my first visit to the Calcutta main branch, after taking up my new posting, I was surprised to find great stacks of large cartons lying on the verandah just outside the main door. I was told that they contained the computers, printers, and terminals that had been sent ahead of the impending computerisation of the branches in Calcutta.
But computerisation was not happening.
The union had protested vehemently against computers, branded as the devil incarnate designed to take away jobs from the poor working masses. The union was affiliated to the Communist Party (Marxist), which had run the state government for the past 18 years (and would, for the next 17, too).
The computers would never enter the bank, the union had declared with the full backing of the government and, hence, all that equipment had been lying on the verandah for the past 19 months.
In this atmosphere, the Bank bowled a googly – it brought in personal computers (PCs).
They were given to selected branch managers. Since they were not installed within the Bank to do actual banking work, thereby replacing any clerks, the union looked at them with great suspicion but could not do anything about them.
It had to content itself with declaring that the PC was a mini-devil—each PC could replace four people.
I was one of the lucky managers on whom a PC was bestowed. The specifications of this magic box will appear to be laughable to you today, but at the time it was truly state-of-the-art:
- No hard disk—two 6-inch floppy drives, one for the program that was to be run, and the other for recording whatever was being done on the PC.
- No mouse, only function keys on the QWERTY keyboard (the only bit on the device that has not changed much in these 40 years).
- 20 MB (yes, megabytes, not GBs or TBs) innards.
- 256 KB (yes, kilo bytes) RAM.
- 12 inch cathode tube, mono-colour screen.
Laughing, huh? Let me remind you that the Apollo mission had reached the moon with much less hardware than this.
Not so long-ago, Bill Gates had remarked that he could not imagine why anybody would ever need a PC with a memory bigger than 80MB.
Yet, this apparently puny toy could do some things. It ran WordPerfect (WP), an early form of today’s Word, and Lotus-123, the precursor of Excel.
It also ran Digger, to the great joy of a few lucky people and the envy of many others.
Digger was an elementary computer game in which a little creature ran around in a two-dimensional field embedded with gems and stone bags. You controlled the creature with the four up-down-side keys (no mouse, remember?).
As it moved at your command it would eat up the field, clearing space as it went along. If it reached a gem it would gobble it up and you scored points, but if it had cleared out the space just below a stone bag, the bag would fall and the creature would be crushed—game over.
There was a time limit within which you had to make the creature eat up all the gems without being crushed by a bag. If you succeeded, you moved to the next round where you needed to be a little bit faster, and more skilled, to survive and complete the round in time.
Several officers, me included, got addicted to Digger. There was a daily battle at 5pm to grab the PC and play Digger. Some clerks, especially the younger ones, used to hang around, mystified by the excitement surrounding the little PC, which one officer operated and several others watched while making excited comments.
After a while everyone got bored with Digger and the PC lay largely unused after work, though during the day, I would use it to do various programs on Lotus and WP.
Then I had an idea. Why not expose some of the younger clerks to it? They seemed mighty interested.
I set up the PC on a wheeled table. Every evening at 5pm, after work had ended for the day, I would roll it out and place it in the hall just outside my office.
At first, a whole bunch of young boys and girls gathered around me, learning how to play Digger. Soon there was a lively competition going, and active negotiations would take place to decide whose turn came next.
I took a step back and watched.
The elderly clerks, especially the union leaders, would look on non-plussed. They did not quite like what was going on; but there was nothing they could really say, let alone do.
After all, the PC was being used for just a game, and that too after office hours, and not for any work.
Eventually, the clerks, too, got bored with Digger. One of them came up to me and asked “What else can this machine do?”
This was the moment I was waiting for!
I introduced him to Lotus-123. He was amazed to discover that it could do long calculations in a trice, multiply dozens of numbers at one shot, add up a huge column with a few key strokes, and all of that.
Soon, there was an even bigger crowd of youngsters around the PC than would be found in the Digger days.
The PC was a big hit.
An enterprising clerk in accounts found that he could calculate the depreciation on hundreds of items by listing them just once, then working out the entire depreciation, a task that would take hours pounding keys on a calculator, in just minutes.
A clerk in savings found a way to calculate interest on savings accounts. Soon, I was flooded with requests for floppies for storing individual data for future calculations.
There was nothing that the union honchos could do about the proliferating use of the PC.
The youngsters just brushed aside their warnings and appeals against the use of the devil machine, and more and more young users came on board.
The path was laid for the upcoming computerisation of the branch.
And I came to be known as the 'Computer Man'!
(Deserting engineering after a year in a factory, Amitabha Banerjee did an MBA in the US and returned to India. Choosing work-to-live over live-to-work, he joined banking and worked for various banks in India and the Middle East. Post-retirement, he returned to his hometown Kolkata and is now spending his golden years travelling the world (until Covid, that is), playing bridge, befriending Netflix & Prime Video and writing in his wife’s travel blog.)