Requiem for Telegram

In the age of @ and gibrish SMSes the telegram has suffered a silent death.

The new generation did not know about telegram. “What’s that,” asked my 11 year old son Joy looking straight into my eyes. I avoided the direct contact because I myself has not seen telegram in last two decades or so. The news of Government decision to close this service invariably transforms me into my school/college days when telegram was the only quickest way of communication.

It immediately reminded the call of “Telegram, telegram” of the telegramwala that made family members very anxious. Elders used to rush out to get the gram with their heart pounding against chest. The women used to study the face of the elders trying to read whether it was a good news or a bad one.

Telegraphy has a long history: it started with the use of smoke signals and then graduated to semaphore, the flag language that allowed messages to be relayed between ships or buildings that were far apart. But all that changed when Samuel Morse sent what is thought to be the first telegram, on May 24, 1844. Morse sent a message from Washington to his assistant Alfred Vail in Baltimore that read: “What hath God wrought?”

The service came to India in 1850 and it was used to send joyous and sad news and sometimes used to send false news of demise of grandparents in officers to avail leave. I remember my boss – a strict disciplinarian who loathed staff asking for leave and how I used telegram to get 13 day leave – unheard in office.

In one winters I had to go to Kolkata. I knew the boss will not allow leave. So, I trusted Mr Morse’s code. I booked my ticket and asked my cousin to send a telegram giving any excuse. He dutifully sent a telegram declaring my grandfather’s death – who had actually died almost 15 years back. The gram reached office. One of the sub-editors received the telegram.

When I reached office the Sub asked in a somber voice about my grandfather. The question was like a music to my ears. I tried to maintain a serious face and said: “No, he is sick. Very sick.”

The Sub-editor paused for a long time and said: “Actually, he is no more. There is telegram…” He came up and sat close to me and talked about old age and death but my mind was wafting over Howrah bridge and river Hoogly.

Sending telegrams have a nostalgic remembrance too. I still remember standing in a queue to send a telegram outside railway station in Varanasi I accidentally peeped into the telegram message of the person standing before me. It read: “Wife loaded, receive delivery.”

Picture above: Facsimile of a telegram courtesy India Philately Stamps. The Government of those days did not shy of advertising cigarettes on its stationery!

2 thoughts on “Requiem for Telegram

  1. My last tryst with telegram was in October 1997, when my brother in law married a girl of his choice without consent of girls’ parents. Now to protect their skin, the newly married couple shot off telegrams to authorities, starting from the Governor to the Ilaka’s Thanedar – High Court Chief Justice, CM, HM, DGP, IG, DM, SSP, SP, et al., in between, fearing threat to their lives from none other than the parents of the girl. And I dutifully took the telegram from their place of hiding to the telegraph office.

    Telegrams were used as evidence in courts. Many companies, particularly pharma companies, still rely on ‘taar’. It will be interesting to see how things take shape now?

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