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160 years on, the telegram retires to the museum

Thursday, 13 June 2013 | Chandan Mitra
10

This had to happen sooner or later. Barring Generation Ex, probably none will shed tears over its demise. The once-ubiquitous telegram lost its utility with the advent of mobile telephony and the internet. The world’s way of communicating changed dramatically and what was once a revolutionary and the fastest mode of communication became redundant, an archaic relic of an era gone by — ready to share museum space with the fast-dying typewriter.

Although I have not sent or received a telegram for over 20 years now, in my childhood and youth, the telegram was the most reliable and quickest way of conveying information. But then, many households did not have telephones those days; the wait for getting a land-line connection could stretch to a decade or more. For those who did have a phone connection, long-distance calls were expensive by the standards of the time and in the absence of STD (which was unheard of till the 80s) sometimes calls took several hours to materialise.

People often used the telegram to communicate with one another even within the same city. Sherlock Holmes fans would recall that the world’s most popular fictional detective always relied on the telegram to inform his clients and the police about his itinerary. The British meticulously constructed a humungous network connecting India, starting in the 1850s. The pace of erecting poles mostly along railway lines hastened in the aftermath of the 1857 uprising whose magnitude and ferocity took the British by complete surprise. India’s erstwhile rulers immediately realised the value of quick communication so that any possible recurrence of such large-scale disturbances could be rapidly contained.

So popular were telegrams even in the 60s that cities had separate Central Telegraph Offices (CTOs) in addition to the main or general post offices (GPOs). For example in Delhi itself, the CTO was located in a heritage building near Cashmere Gate, in fact, just beyond the Lothian Bridge that takes trains to the Old Delhi Railway Station.

I recall having driven to it on my scooter in the freezing cold of January 1, 1978, braving bitterly chilly winds, to inform my safe arrival in Delhi. It being a Sunday, other P&T offices were shut. I had just married and both sets of parents were anxious to hear from us. As trunk calls were too expensive for a college teacher surviving on a princely pay of Rs 970 per month, I decided the chill was easier braved than the prospect of parting with some twenty rupees that two long-distance calls would cost. (By way of putting things in perspective, petrol sold at Rs 3.30 a litre those days).

Then there were Greetings telegrams that could be sent even cheaper. The list of greetings such as “Many Happy Returns of the Day”, “Congratulations on your Wedding”, had numbers

written against each. You looked at the list on a board and told the operator, No 6 or whatever the appropriate number. That number would be forwarded to the receiving telegraph office, decoded and delivered by the postman, always within 24 hours. Considering letters took approximately a week on an average, the telegram was indeed a phenomenally fast and remarkably cheap way of communication.

Telegraph offices were busy through the day and night. The CTO at Cashmere Gate was open 24 hours and there were queues even at midnight. Even if city folk had the phone option, villagers had none. It was an open secret that employees would often get friends or relatives to send a fake telegram saying “Mother serious, come fast”! Employers although sceptical of the veracity of such grams, were compelled to grant leave when this was shown to them, for fear of being held liable for a parent’s demise in the son’s absence.

My father journeyed to Barbil, now a flourishing mining town in Keonjhar, Odisha, but in the boondocks those days. Although there was a telephone in his office, it was a wind-up instrument whose bell rang in the one-room post office when wound up. It was faster to send a gram, since a trunk call often matured only after 24 hours. Each time he went there, which was at least once a month, a post-office delivery man would knock on our door, shouting Telegram! Telegram! It always contained two words, “Arrived Safely”.

I would do the same on reaching Delhi as a student, using the P&T office next to the Vice-Chancellor’s Office on the DU campus. In an effort to modernise and hasten communication, P&T

introduced the phonogram in the 70s, whereby the telegraphic message would be read out over the telephone (if you had one at home), obviating the necessity for immediate hand delivery. But for the record, the paper trail would also be sent, although a couple of days later.

When I became a journalist, working with The Statesman in Kolkata, I had to sometimes send my reports that way. Press persons were issued P&T cards which enabled us to file copies by telegram and telex (a relatively new innovation) and even make trunk calls to the headquarters without paying cash as the cards were postpaid by the organisation.

Reporting on terrorism in Punjab in 1984, one evening I reached Ludhiana to find the telex machine at the GPO out of order. Given the urgency of the report, I was left with no option but dictate my entire story to the grumpy telegraph operator whose machine went tappity-tap to the Morse code. Later, the News Editor said my story had run into an extravagant 22 sheets with many undecipherable words (the reluctant babu’s faulty English to blame!) and took over three hours to retype!

District correspondents too often filed this way. As Chief of the Times of India News Service in the late 80s, it was my lot to sort out telegram sheets, each line pasted on the form, and punctuation marks spelt out. A joke of telegram’s nascent years was that in Britain stingy businessmen found a way to beat the cost by sending only punctuation marks, which were free (that is, not counted as a word). So, one shipper from London sent a telegram to his shipping agent thus (;). Spelt out, it reached the agent as semicolon. The agent replied next day, saying (:). In case you haven’t figured this out, the message was “see my coal on” and the reply “coal on”!

It’s always nostalgic when an era passes. Those born into urban India since the 90s wouldn’t have heard of the telegram. And with a mobile phone in virtually everyone’s palm even in rural India, the telegram had to give way to the new age. Time and tide wait for no man; or technology!  

 
 
 
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