Romance of the telegram set to fade in India

13th June 2013
Romance of the telegram set to fade in India

Anand Parthasarathy recalls its heyday with nostalgia
Bangalore June 13 2013
I was watching that old Hindi classic “Choti Si Baat” on the UTV movie channel yesterday. At fade out, mentor Ashok Kumar sees off Amol Palekar and Vidya Sinha, as they board an Ambassador car taxi to a happily wedded future, while the voice-over asks us to send them ‘Thar number aat: Sukhmay Vaivahik Jeevan ke liye hamari shubh kamnayen” ( Greetings telegram no. 8: Best wishes for a long and happy married life).
When  I resumed my work after this break, I saw the wire service news that telegram services in India would end on July 15, 162 years after they were first Introduced on the subcontinent, by the British. 

I have sent any number of Thar number aat greetings telegrams to friends and relatives… indeed when they printed the wedding invitations, most of them helpfully included the telegraphic address of the mandapam or marriage hall where the ceremony was being performed. The telegrams boy usually arrived smack in the middle of the muhurtham or auspicious hour, with a fistful of pink telegrams which he handed over to the authorised rep of bride and groom – and he was usually politely invited to join the wedding lunch before cycling back to the post office.
I have also received my share of curt ( bordering on rudeness, in the name of brevity) telegrams, requiring my presence in Delhi for a job interview of the Union Public Service Commission. In spite of the “express” class, they invariably arrived just a few days before the interview date – which meant a mad scramble to leave on a long train journey ( "second class sleeper by shortest route only”), the very next day.
In Delhi for many decades, there was a Telegraph Lane and a Telegraph Traffic lane just off what is now Kasturba Gandhi Marg. A cousin of mine, most of whose professional career was spent in the Telegraph engineering department’s offices in Eastern Court on Janpath, was something of a legend in the art of abbreviating the number of words required to convey a given message in a telegram. After visiting him in Delhi, I used to send a telegram to my parents to expect me by a particular train, back in Pune or Poona as it was known. My telegraphically trained cousin Narasimhan ( “Thambi” to us) invariably grabbed my draft, knocked off a word here, telescoped two words there and converted it into a succinct piece of creative, abbreviated writing – saving me a couple of rupees in the bargain. In the 1970s – the era when the telegram was for me the commonest speed mode of communication -- the rate was something like Rs 3 for 10 words ( The wire service story that is carried by most newspapers today speaks of Rs 3 for 50 words, which I think is incorrect. That is not my recollection. In any case that would have removed the incentive to reduce the words to a minimum which always drove us in those days). 

To further economise, the P&T or Post and Telegraph office offered a set of standard phrases. You paid just to say “Greetings number 10”. This was tranformed into a wordier phrase like the ones we were asked to send Amol and Vidya and what’s more, was delivered in a special coloured cover. Trouble was, once the telex machines came into use, replacing the old morse keyer, the recipient post office sometimes did not bother to decode the abbreviated greeting, so that I sometimes received telegrams where the telex ticker, torn off and pasted on the form read “ NUMBER SEVEN”. It took a bit of research and reference to a diary ( they helpfully carried the full quota of 40 greeting codes) before I decoded this to read “Congratulations on the Distinction conferred on you.” There were no codes for messages conveying sickness or death. One had to draft those – but messages conveying such emergencies were delivered at express telegram speed at no extra charge. Express telegrams were delivered even at night, unlike ordinary ones which waited for daylight.

A circular from the Sr General Manager (Telegraph Services) of Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd (BSNL) Corporate office, New Delhi informs their offices all over India that telegram services will be closed from July 15 and as a result all telegraph offices under the management of BSNL will have to stop booking telegrams from that date. BSNL inherited the telegram services when telegraph offices in Post Offices were shifted out and merged with the telephone service. Now apparently, BSNL loses some 350 crore rupees (Rs 3.5 billion) every year by running the telegram service.
The service was first launched in India in 1851 and was said to be one of the reasons the British could put a quick finish to the Sepoy Mutiny that became the first War of Independence.
In 2011, the basic rate for telegrams was raised after almost 60 years from Rs 3 to Rs 27 – but it was a loss maker even at this price… and hardly popular in an era where for the same price one could make a brief call to a fixed or mobile phone any where in the world. And emails which cost next to nothing rendered telegrams virtually extinct. 

But it lives on in other countries. In the UK telegrams services, both domestic and international, continue to be offered by BT – though the basic cost of a domestic telegram is pounds sterling 4.95, rising to 39.95 for same day delivery – so clearly this is not a competitor to cheaper Net-driven methods, but more a personal thing like sending a bunch of roses. ( The motto is “They’ll never forget a telegram!”). 
No place for such nostalgia here, it seems. The telegram is all set to die in India a month from now, mourned by all those who still remember the small but vital part it played in   helping  us communicate, as fast as technology allowed in an earlier age. RIP 

One of the reasons the British still hang on with nostalgia to the telegram, may be the indelible place it occupies in the public mind, thanks to classic fictional heroes and their way with the telegram.
Writes Watson about Sherlock Holmes in one of the Conan Doyle mysteries: “He has never been known to write where a telegram would serve”. The Boscombe Valley Mystery begins with a telegram, that Watson, now happily married receives from his friend: “Have you a couple of days to spare? Have just been wired for from the west of England in connection with Boscombe Valley tragedy. Shall be glad if you will come with me. Air and scenery perfect. Leave Paddington by the 11:15.” Needless to say, Watson packs his trusted service revolver and leaves by the 11.15.
Another inveterate if verbose telegram writer (with no expense spared ) is Bertie Wooster’s aunt Dahlia. In P.G. Wodehouse's  “Right Ho, Jeeves”, she writes: “Am taking legal advice to ascertain whether strangling an idiot nephew counts as murder. If it doesn’t look out for yourself. Consider your conduct frozen limit. What do you mean by planting your loathsome friends on me like this? Do you think Brinkley Court is a leper colony or what is it? Who is this Spink-Bottle? Love. Travers.”
Bertie replies more economically: “Not Bottle. Nottle. Regards. Bertie.” To which his aunt responds a little later: “Deeply regret Brinkley Court hundred miles from London as unable hit you with a brick. Love. Travers.”
And that American comic genius Mark Twain revealed: “I once sent a dozen of my friends a telegram saying 'flee at once - all is discovered.' They all left town immediately.”