An ode to the telegram

My career as a journalist has run parallel to the communication revolution in India. My first full blown election reportage was in 1984 – and I remember the long wait at the Central Telegraph Office to send out a telegram with just the salient points of a particular address by a particular leader after an election rally in the rural districts.

Usually such reports took a day to arrive at the headquarters and another day to see light of day, The telegram speeded up the delivery. Now if you were a sub-editor on the desk, as I was at the start of my career, it was a hard task piecing together that information which arrived through telegrams. Because while news telegrams – at one paisa for two words, if I remember correctly – were lengthier than the usual cryptic messages that such communication method was reserved for, sometimes correspondents wanted to have their full say and tens of them arrived simultaneously – sometimes the last one first and the first hours later driving one up the wall when a deadline was fast approaching. They came in capital letters with the printing on strips of paper pasted on the telegram form, rendering it heavy to the touch and feel and typing them out on a typewriter was another arduous task.

Then Rajiv Gandhi arrived on the scene and when he began to talk of not allowing India to bypass the IT revolution as it had bypassed the industrial revolution, I was not sure of what that might mean, apart from the expectation that our ancient typewriters would be replaced by computers. But after his election rally at Solapur in 1989, when I approached the CTO to ask if they had a telex machine or would I have to depend on morse codes again, the post master there said, “Why telegrams? They are so outdated now. I can give you a fax machine – provided there is one at your end to receive your documents.”

That was a great delight and I faxed my report across with ease, not having to worry for half the day if my copy had arrived legibly or had gone garbled, if the sub-editors had been able to decode it or would I have to place an STD call later to read my report out t them so that they could fill in the blanks. Laptops and e-mails made it even easier at the next elections and now I just travel with my smart phone, and my iPad, no fears about reports not making the deadline, so long as I am on time.

But while I do not miss the troublesome era of telegrams, I must say, the news that the government will put an end to this means of communication next month has instilled a whole feeling of nostalgia for old times – and that is not limited to just news dispatches by telegrams. Telegrams were such an intrinsic part of life – calls for interviews, wishes for marriages and birthdays, childbirths and arrivals of relatives, sometimes when telegrams late at night there would be such apprehension and one would open it with trepidation, praying it did not contain bad news.

I also remember a friend of mine receiving 16 telegrams in just one day – her wedding day – from just one person: her older sister-in-law. Her husband, an older man, had had another girl friend but unexpectedly fell in love with her. Her sister-in-law was pregnant and about to deliver at the time of her marriage and the girl who had wanted to marry the man was among her sister-in-law’s closest friends. On the day of the marriage, which the sister-in-law could not attend due to advanced pregnancy – this friend went across to the would-be mother and cursed my friend sixteen times in the space of a few hours. “I wish she would die,” was what the jilted woman would say. Not knowing how to choose between friend and sister-in-law, the older lady picked up the phone and dashed off a telegram saying, “I wish you a long and happy married life.” She thought that would cancel out the curses her friend was placing on her younger sister-in-law but that also led a to a rare bonding between the two women that remains even today.

I know that the world is changing and we have to move on. But I still want to hang on to a little remnant of the days of childhood and I hope the hundreds of telegrams pouring in on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will have the same effect as did the 16 telegrams my friend’s sister in law sent her – she has been long and happily married for years now. I hope the telegram will live on too.

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