By Sahana Ghosh
Amateur radio, quintessentially a geeky hobby, has come to the rescue of a 35-year-old woman from Tamil Nadu who had puzzled doctors at a West Bengal hospital for four years for her inability to recall a shred of information about her life.
In a few days, Visalakshi is all set to be united with her family in Kolkata, over 1,500 km away from her native Krishnapuram village in Tamil Nadu, thanks to a network of Ham radio operators -- or Hams -- spanning the two states.
It was four years ago that she was brought in by locals to the Barasat District Hospital in North 24-Parganas district (about 30 km from state capital Kolkata) after they spotted her wandering about in the area.
"She was unable to recall anything initially. She has been with us for four years and is under treatment as a psychiatry patient. We even arranged a translator as she was unable to communicate with us in Hindi or English. We tried to contact the local police in Tamil Nadu but couldn't make much progress," the hospital's Superintendent Subrata Mondal told IANS.
But, as her memory improved, Visalakshi began to plead with Mondal to contact her family.
"Once her condition improved and she seemed to recollect pieces of information, we decided to try out Ham," Mondal said, especially as the police seemed of little help.
"We approached West Bengal Radio Club (Amateur Club) and provided a video recording of Visalakshi talking about herself," Mondal said.
Led by Ambarish Nag Biswas of the club, a team of around nine Hams hooked up with some of their counterparts in Tamil Nadu.
Through EchoLink, a software that allows licensed amateur radio stations to communicate with one another over the Internet, using streaming-audio technology, the Hams exchanged information.
"One of our licensed Hams, T. Gopinath, a research scholar, helped translate and interpret Visalakshi's data. There is a very popular app called EchoLink through which Hams in India contact each other around 9.15 pm each night. During our chat, the first update is about any medical or traffic emergency. We conveyed to the Chennai Hams about the woman's plight," said Biswas.
What followed sounds like something out of a sci-fi thriller. Only it was real.
P. Kalyanasundaram, a Ham operator as well as professor of electronics and communication engineering in Erode's Nandha Engineering College, picked up the emergency transmission and swung into action, alerting other Hams across the state.
"It was a mix of ham radio and mobile communication and finally the information reached a village administrative officer who managed to locate the woman's brother," Kalyanasundaram told IANS from Erode.
Around six Hams from various parts of Tamil Nadu were involved in the task.
As suspense mounted, a call facilitated between the woman's brother, Damodharan, and Barasat hospital staff member Joita Sarkar brought much-needed relief for all.
"Visalakshi spoke to her brother and recognised him. This call took place on Wednesday morning. Now we are waiting for them to reunite," said Biswas.
Damodharan is now gearing up to travel to Bengal. In a barely discernible mix of Hindi and English, he told IANS: "I am going to meet my sister."
There is a minor twist in the tale. Visalakshi was constantly worried about a missing daughter, recalls Biswas, which he found intriguing.
"Perhaps she was harbouring some delusion, but we have found out that her daughter is fine and is expecting. So we are trying to arrange a communication between the two. The good news will aid her recovery," said Biswas.
"During disasters, when all communications fail, Ham survives. There is no discrimination in terms of age, religion and country. Service is our motto -- Ham is for helping mankind," remarked Kalyanasundaram.
This is one disaster with a decidedly happy ending.