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How the net helped me get my memory back


In 1997, Rakesh Sharma brought an Intel Pentium 166MHz desktop PC to his Green Park home in South Delhi. His two boys, Mayank and Shashank, were thrilled. Soon, father and sons were setting up Linux on it. These are fond memories for the Sharmas.

Except for Mayank...

It started off as a bout of hyperacidity and fever in 2009. Soon, Mayank was experiencing acute headaches, neck pain, sensitivity to light and wide fluctuations in body temperature. The doctor's diagnosis was tubercular meningitis (TBM), an infection of the central nervous system. By the end of January 2010, Mayank had lost his memory.

After recovering from TBM, Mayank, who still couldn't remember anything, was told he was a technology writer by profession, published in several international magazines. Keen on jogging his memory, he turned to what he knew best.

"My family has helped tremendously in my recovery. We still have that 166MHz desktop. When I saw that computer, I recalled some of the details about the day when we first got it, and the Linux OS that we were trying to install. "

He doesn't remember much from the early days of his recovery, but he's able to look back upon it with good humour. Take, for instance, the first time someone asked him, 'Do you remember your name?'

"See, initially, I couldn't even understand what they were saying because I didn't understand language. My dad and brother had to teach me how to read and write. I was a complete vegetable when I got back from the hospital. I had no clue how to use the bathroom or take a bath, " he says.

"I had to relearn everything like a new-born. Chronologically, I am 29, but if you ask me I feel no older than a three-year-old - except that I have the ability to articulate my experience. "
The gadgets and services Mayank used over the years helped him get an idea of who he was before he lost his memory.

Relearning language  

Since he used to be a writer, Mayank was spurred to get back to it. Language was the first hurdle, with spelling and writing coherently proving especially tough. The mobile phone, which was with him all the time, became his English tutor.

The T9 dictionary, which auto-spells words as you type them out, was a godsend. He spent hours entering a couple of letters and then browsing through all the auto-complete options.
Watching news on the TV taught him how to construct sentences. And Shashank downloaded free BBC radio programmes on pronunciation, as well as pointing him to their section on pronunciation tips and grammar.

"I tested my newly reacquired skills on my blog and Twitter. Twitter's character limit forces one to be creative, " Mayank says.

A life backed up on a google  

With no memory, but an Internet connection at hand, Mayank did the most natural thing to do: Google himself. He discovered articles he had written for various publications, such as Linux. com, IBM developerWorks and others. Google Books pointed him to two books he had authored for a UK-based publisher.

Searching his username, 'geekybodhi', showed him every comment he had posted, every thread on every forum he had engaged in, and every web service he used.
And then there was Gmail.
"Thanks to Gmail, I've been able to piece together the missing years of my life. "

The oldest email was dated September 1, 2004. And there were 9, 577 messages from that day to January 2010, from a total of 899 contacts - both professional and personal.

"Be it the exhaustive threads hashing out articles and book edits with my editors, or sending out music recommendations to friends, every email tells me something about myself in my own words, " he says. "And I can't thank the Gmail team enough for automatically saving Google chat logs in my mailbox. "

People you may know  

After Google, Mayank admits to owing a lot to Facebook for adding much-needed context to his life, smartly finding and suggesting friends.

"Despite all the advancements in medical science, there's no substitute for a one-on-one interaction with people you have run into at various stages of your life. "

The 'People You May Know' feature helped connect him to several "familiar strangers". He has streamlined the process now. First, trace the common contacts because of which FB has suggested he might know someone. Then send that person a message, explaining his condition and asking if they knew him, and if so, how.

"One fine day, I got a message on Facebook from him, candidly yet disguisedly asking me whether I was the same guy he knew and met, " recalls his friend Tarun. "I remember my response to him was quite an emotional one, while trying to divulge as much as details I could, so that he could recall me properly. "

Like with Tarun, more often than not, Mayank received positive feedback.

"Without Facebook, I can't imagine connecting with the people I have connected with, " says Mayank. "Even if I dug up old phonebooks, how would I reach out to batch mates in Manchester and California or my editors, former and current, in USA and England?"

Mayank also created a Facebook Page called 'Help me (re)build my Memory Palace', where friends are free to write about him and others can add to it. The idea was to use it as his own Wikipedia.

Worth a thousand words 

Mayank's interests have changed from what they used to be. The obsessive F1 fanatic is now bored by the sport. The boy who would mostly subsist on pizza or chole-bature is now an avid foodie and loves to experiment. Action movies don't catch his fancy any more. But the one hobby that has remained constant has been photography, especially macro photography.

One incident, particularly, is quite special to him. He found a new photo that he had clicked to be very similar to another picture he had shot in 2006 and shared on Flickr.

"Six years apart, I shoot and edit the same flower in the exact same way that I did all that time ago. Same type of flower, same shot, same crop, and same person!" he says. "Thanks to Flickr, I can connect to my old self and find continuance in one of the emotional things that I can still identify with. "

It's clear technology is a huge part of Mayank's life now.

"The doctor asked him if he was feeling stronger, " laughs his friend, Karthik. "He replied that he used to have camera shake at 1/50s and now he can shoot hand-held at 1/200s, no problem. "

Memory reboot 

Apart from Gmail, Facebook and Flickr, Mayank used a lot of other tech to get back to normal. . .

Old computers and CDs:

It was a treasure chest. I found in-process articles, bookmarked websites, free Linux-related ebooks, and pictures I was editing. Multiple operating systems and a host of beta-software were a strong indication of my vocation, and the neatly filed folders pointed to my organisational skills.

Old phone:

It had a lot of music on it, which gave me an indication of what my tastes were.

New phone:

My writing wasn't legible for a long time, So I used my mobile phone to record audio notes to share with my doctor.


Since I didn't know the roads, I used OpenStreetMaps to find my way around. I now record my GPS tracks too.


To learn how to use appliances like microwave ovens, YouTube helped. I watched a 30-minute video describing everything about an induction cooker;by the end of it, I knew everything there is to know.

Wikipedia and 'See Also' :

Wikipedia was invaluable in finding out more about any subject. And its "See also" section points you to other related topics, giving context.

Force Feedback Wheel and Simulators:

I used a force feedback wheel and virtual simulators when I wanted to learn to drive a car. It's not a substitute for the real thing, but it definitely helped me get back behind the wheel.

KeePassX and LastPass:

I had KeePassX set up on my computer which remembered all my old usernames and passwords, making it easy to log into services. I now use LastPass for the same purpose.


Apart from helping me in being more creative with my words, I use Twitter to connect with neurologists from around the world.

XR Files and Ubuntu One:

I initially used Xrfiles, an online service to store and manage medical image exams, to share MRI and CT scans with neurologists around the world. Now I use Ubuntu's cloud storage service, Ubuntu One, and put up links on my website.

Reader's opinion (4)

Naina GuptaApr 23rd, 2013 at 14:01 PM

Very interesting..

Aparna BasuAug 19th, 2012 at 12:03 PM

When cyber crimes and social media leads to suicides, it's endearing to see that Internet and technology helps someone rebuild their the end of the day, it's how one uses the choices one is presented in life,

Aparna BasuAug 19th, 2012 at 12:00 PM

At a time when suicides due to Facebook and other cyber crimes become rampant, this is endearing that someone used the infamous Internet to rebuild their lives. At the end of the day, it is what one makes of the choices one gets in life.

Mohan DatarAug 19th, 2012 at 11:39 AM

This is a great case study for 'IT in everyday life's. It is also a testimony of IT's intuitiveness. Very very inspiring for a first generation. IT person like me.

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