On July 12, the world’s last commercial telegram will be sent. After 163 years since the first telegram was sent in India, the system will be stopped. Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) has decided the telegraph service is no longer viable as a business. For Indians, the announcement brings nostalgia, for the telegram was not just a messaging service. A postman bringing a telegram meant hearts beating faster, blood pressure soaring, and foreheads sweating. It usually brought good news like the birth of a child or the bagging of a job, or bad news like death and illness. Talk takes a look at the various roles the telegram played:
Like a phone call, but quicker
Just 20 years ago, the telephone was a luxury only the reasonably rich could afford. Making an outstation (trunk) call meant shelling out a lot of money. A phone call never ends with, “Hello! I have reached safely.” The pleasantries mean extra money. It was here the telegram came to the rescue. For years it has done the job of carrying messages briefly. And jokes about the service abound: A telegram said, “REACHED SAFE GAVE BIRTH TO OLD LADY.” It actually meant to say, “GAVE BERTH (bed on a train)...
In pre-modern times, a death usually meant someone in the family was assigned the task of going about from house to house with the bad news. We now use the mobile phone. This has made things more difficult. Telling a woman about her husband’s death, for instance, is not easy. Members of the bereaved family are expected to inform friends and relatives about the death. The telegram made this simple for all. Just two words, “Father expired” did the job, saving everybody the harrowing experience of talking about it again. We have the SMS now. Older people might find it discourteous, but they did not take the telegram as lightly. The telegram was used so extensively for the purpose of relaying bad news that it came to be associated with death. In older Bollywood films, when a woman reads a telegram, she either faints or bursts into tears.
Bouquet, and escape route
Before the advent of e-mail and ecommerce, a telegram was the perfect way to send greetings. In case of a wedding you were unable to attend, you just sent a telegram saying a simple “CONGRATULATIONS”. (Yes, telegrams were always all caps!). The Posts and Telegraphs Department made it easy, giving numbers to common greetings. All you had to do was choose a number, and enter the mandatory address details, and the message was on its way. A telegram was treated with the same importance as a bouquet is treated with now. For those who wanted to escape the bother of travel and the clamour of the wedding reception, it was an easy escape.
The original express greeting
Greeting cards were expensive, even before the coming of Archies in India. You had to bear the cost of cards for the many relatives, and also pay the postage. Plus, you had to prepare in advance, choosing the cards and posting them days in advance so that they reached in time. Speedpost and couriers did not exist, and when they were started, they were expensive, too. A telegram with a message like “ID MUBARAK” or “MERRY CHRISTMAS” came in handy. Some would choose longer messages like “MY HEARTIEST HOLI GREETINGS TO YOU AND YOUR FAMILY.” The telegram could also be used for occasions like Buddha Jayanti, for which commercially produced greeting cards are not available.
Safe way to seek more leave
We know how dreadful it is to call the boss and ask for an extension of leave. It calls for hours of thought on what to say and how to say it, and courage to speak into the phone. Once the words are uttered, you wait with bated breath for the boss’s response. With the telegram, you could simply request leave and assume it was granted. A message like “GRANDMOTHER SERIOUS STOP PRAY EXTEND LEAVE FOR FIFTEEN DAYS,” meant you didn’t have to rush back to work. The receipt of sending the telegram could be used as evidence, in case of any litigation. (Yes, there was a time when a sacking was fraught with risk for the employer!)
Medium to register protest
Social activists have been using the telegram for decades. The telegram not only carries the message quickly, but also ensures that the addressee receives it. DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi is known to have made his followers send thousands of telegrams to the prime minister and president when he had to lodge a protest. The mayors of Hiroshima have a tradition of sending protest telegrams to the chief of countries that test nuclear weapons. The walls of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum in Japan are pasted with protest telegrams sent since 1968. Chennai-based social activist Traffic Ramaswamy sent a telegram to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh when BSNL announced it was stopping the telegraph service. The protest telegram read: “I URGE YOU TO DROP THIS ANTI-PEOPLE ACTIVITY OF CLOSING THE TELEGRAM.”
An app long before Twitter
A century and a half before Twitter introduced the 140-character limit, the telegram had instilled in people the habit of brevity. People sent the most important and serious messages in just a few characters.