By: Nandita Kaza
Sunday, July 14th marked the last day of the Telegram Service in India. Having just arrived in Mumbai a few days earlier, I had not kept abreast of the local news, amongst which was the government announcement exactly a month earlier of the termination of the telegram service. Chancing upon a conversation, I became visibly excited at the prospect of being able to send one for the very last time. A quick Google search and a phone call to the Central Telegraph Office later, my 80-year old great-uncle, 27-year old cousin and myself were packed into an auto-rickshaw and on our way to the closest open BSNL Telegraph Office at Deonar, Mumbai, each keen to be a part of this episode in history that would soon be sealed off forever.
The telegram service, now difficult to even label a sunset industry, started in India in 1850 and has played a pivotal role in the nation’s history. Once widely credited as the reason India could save itself in the 1857 rebellion against the British due to the ability to secretly and rapidly mobilise troops, as was noted by Lord Dalhousie[i], I am certain (and to a large extent, ashamed) that many of our youth today, myself included, would have been hard-pressed to perhaps even know the difference between a telegraph and a telegram if they were to be spontaneously asked.
On the other hand, my brigade of aunts all reminisced fondly about the countless times they had been instructed to send a telegram to a distant relative in a far-off city, alerting them of someone’s pending arrival by train, sending greetings to a newlywed couple whose marriage they had been unable to attend and many times even sharing the news of a birth or a death. My great-uncle fondly recounted a story of an old colleague who had devised a clever system with his wife where logistical information of arrivals and departures were encoded in standardised holiday greetings, which were far cheaper to send then a personalised telegram. It quickly became evident that this technology, which to our far younger generation seemed archaic and obsolete, had once been a cornerstone of our society.
Upon arriving at the Deonar Telegraph Office, we were greeted by a small set of rooms with only two staff members and an old but well-kept sign reading Taar, as the service is locally known in Marathi and underneath in bold English letters, Telegram, hanging off a rusty grilled window. Suddenly, my great-uncle of 80 was the tech-savvy one and could expertly navigate his way around the decades-old telegram form, unlike hours earlier where we impatiently tried to teach him how to use his new touch-screen phone. We filled at least a dozen forms, sending off short messages to friends and family across the country and to one another so that we too would have keepsakes of this soon-to-be relic of world history.
The operator chuckled as she noted that several of our telegrams had the same address in both sender and receiver’s columns. Pleased perhaps with our visible enthusiasm, we were taken behind the counter into the room where scrolls of paper were stacked on a rickety shelf, an ancient telegraph hung disconnected from the wall with its newer counterparts, the teleprinter, and more recent, the computer sat looking slightly shinier on a desk. The gentlemen manning the office even offered to change into his delivery uniform so that we could take a picture and posed willingly at his desk.
Throughout, he lamented the end of the service, expressing his distress over where the operator BSNL would relocate him to. He explained that almost every telegraph office operator out of the 1000 odd across the country had taken money out of their own hard-earned, measly government salaries to send a telegram to the Telecom Minister, demanding that he reverse his decision for the service to be discontinued. Alas this was to no avail, as the end of the service was splashed across local newspapers the next day, telling of the thousands of other eager Mumbaikars, who like us, had ventured out on a monsoon afternoon to send one of the city’s last telegrams.
The entire experience left me with both a sense of thrill at having been privileged enough to be a part of this iconic farewell to the telegram, and a certain sense of abashedness, at the plight of our generation and the way in which we so frivolously employ the technological means available to us today. With a facility and ease which telegraph operators many decades ago who painfully transcribed messages in Morse code would only have dreamed of using, the youth of today exploit services such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram with a boisterous sense of purposefulness which in an earlier time, was reserved for arranging weddings and funerals. A quick note to everyone in my social circle about which new destination I would be arriving at or a broadcasted photo of a wedding instagrammed with a funky filter are modern-day luxuries our parents and grandparents were never even able to fathom. Instead, they had to be selective about whom they communicated what crucial piece of news to as telegrams were charged by the word; every punctuation mark or trivial formality discarded until what was left was a skeleton of a message, containing only the imperative.
The telegram gave way to emails and later, SMS’s, which often in their lengthy form no longer live up to their name of “short messaging” and soon, it was all too easy for most of the population to relay a piece of news to someone across the country or even the world, instantaneously. While brevity in our communications has yet again become trendy with the use of short, catchy hashtags, and the restricted Twitter character limit; it is now not so much the detail of the information we choose to share as it is the very content we highlight as significant enough to do so.
Will any of my Facebook friends really care if I am to check-in at Mumbai, Singapore or Edinburgh Airport? Do they actually want to know not only which movie I saw where and with whom, but also exactly what I thought of it? A post of mine earlier this week about a delightful dish I was indulging in at a local Mumbai joint elicited a comment from a cousin abroad asking whether it tasted better after having posted about it on Facebook. One can easily argue that these online services are a great boon, allowing us to keep in touch with those we care about in different corners of the globe and share every facet of our lives with them in a way so intricate, that they even feel as though they are playing an integral part. Personally, I am one of those perhaps all-too infuriating users, who feels compelled to check-in everywhere and bombard my friends list overzealously with photos of people I meet and places I see. In a society where our elders sparingly communicated across long distances for important messages, we now broadcast trivial updates of the food we eat, the people we converse with and the music we listen to with an almost equal sense of importance, raising doubts as to whether many of us truly know to differentiate between what is actually significant and what is merely interesting.
Lost in such musings the following day, I heard the watchman downstairs ring the intercom and announce the arrival of the telegraph delivery boy. A few minutes later, a khaki-clad young man took out five of what could be his last telegrams ever and placed them in my hand. And with that, I took out my iPhone and instagrammed the first and last telegram I had ever received, hash-tagged it as the #endofanera and broadcast to it my very modest yet globally dispersed following of friends, assuming of course, that they were all awaiting my earth-shattering post (which although the highlight of my own day, was of little relevance to anyone else’s) with the same sense of urgency one would have awaited a telegram bearing life-changing news.
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