What work do you really do?

The title is a literal translation of what my 90 year old grandmother asked me (in Tamil) a while back. It sounds a lot more ironic and dry in Tamil than it does in English.

Background. My grandmother is a remarkable woman who could have been a university professor if she hadnt been married off at the age of 13. She is an imaginative, ever curious, hyperactive, liberal and remarkable story teller who can bring the Mahabharatha to life better than Doordarshan ever did. She lived most of her active life in a small village in Tirunelveli that even detailed roadmaps dont bother listing.

She asked me the question in the title.

I offered “Software”..”Computer programming”

Not good enough. What is software? What is programming?

Ok. This requires a bit of imagination. Software programming is “teaching a computer to do useful things”.

Oh. A little better. But not entirely clear yet. So you guys are “computer repair people” ?

No No No. Those are different people. Computers are not smart. We teach them to be useful to banks, factories, offices etc.

So why cant the “computer repair people” do what you are doing? Why are they paying you so much? Do “computer repair people” get that much? Anyway, how do you “teach” a computer? Isnt it a machine? How can it listen to you?

No. It doesnt listen. It has a something like a slate and it only understands one language. We know that language and we write it on the slate. So it understands.

So what do you teach it. Give me an example.

Hm. Lets see. We teach computers to open bank accounts. We also teach it to find bank accounts very fast. Faster than a person can find it on a file cabinet.

Ok.Ok. But I still dont understand why they pay you so much for writing on a slate. Teachers dont get paid that much. And kids are harder to teach. And dei, the other day, we heard Karthik (my geeky younger brother) speak on the computer (Skype). How does that work?

Oh. That. His computer converts his voice to electricity and it travels through the wire and then it changes itself to radio and it travels through the air, and then the satellite catches the radio and sends it to chennai and it becomes electricity again. Our computer catches it and it converts it into voice and we hear him.

Oh. I know electricity lights bulbs and rotates fans. How does it carry voice?

And so it goes.

Everytime I talk to her, her curiosity exposes my ignorance more than anything else.

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