This innocent sounding one-word call by the postman knocking at the door was sufficient to make the chicken-hearted women in the house so nervous that some of them would head for the loo. Often, even the braveheart males would also feel shaken.
Such was the dreadful effect of the word on members of average families. For them, the telegram, called ‘Taar’ (a wired message) in Hindi, was primarily the harbinger of bad news — of somebody’s demise or serious illness etc. A happy development was seldom communicated via the telegram.
For the convenience of the sender, the Telegraph department had formulated over a dozen clauses on commonly used subjects like greetings on festivals, birthdays and congratulations on “new arrivals”, success in examinations etc. Mention of only the relevant clause number on the form saved the sender money and bother.
Yet, not many people chose the mode because in any case, it involved going to the telegraph office and filling the form. They found it convenient to write out a post card or a letter at home at their convenience. The thinking was that good news could wait, but matters related to somebody’s demise or serious illness could not.
For a long time, government offices and even courts used the telegram to convey some urgent message with proof of its delivery and acknowledgement. However, it was best used by employees who wanted to go on leave, but knew the boss would not grant it! On their prompting, their family back home in some far away city would send him a telegram reading something like, ‘Mother seriously ill. Come first train’. And even the most obstinate boss had to grant him leave. Nice trick indeed!
That pink paper did the job easily what lot of imploring could not have done.
All this will become history on July 15 when the Indian Telegram will die at the age of 163 years.
All these years, the telegram had been an integral part of the services provided by the Indian Post and Telegraph Department and later the Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited, a public sector undertaking. But it started losing its relevance following the advent of internet and cell phones that led to wide use of text messages, fax and emails.
Lately, its woes were compounded by the emergence of smartphones that have made it possible to send and receive emails even when one is on the move. Over the years, the service became unviable mainly due to the user’s disdain. Recently, the BSNL decided to say good bye to ‘Taar’.
Well, in the current dispensation, there will be no more dashing off to the telegraph office to send a telegram.
In retrospect, the telegram era was a memorable experience for many. I used to be fascinated by the sound of the Morse Code, the brass gadget screwed to the table, which was used by the telegrapher to transmit messages. Like the shorthand, he had to memorise the code allotted to each of the English alphabets.
He would rhythmically press its knob to produce sound like ‘Gitt, girgitt, gir ...’ which was decoded by the person at the receiving end and the message written out. Till the advent of telex, the text was written in hand. But, as luck would have it, English being an alien language, the majority of telegraphers were not comfortable with it.
So, many of them not only wrongly decoded the message, they committed spelling mistakes that made the text unintelligible. Some times the messed up telegrams made ridiculous and laughable reading which got highlighted in the newspapers.
Bad handwriting was another problem. Once, a telegram gave jitters to our large family with nobody being able to identify the sender and the city from where it was sent. A telegram being telegram, there was tension in the house. It was only after my cousin visited the telegraph office the next day to check the message that everybody heaved a sigh of relief.
Well, all that will become a thing of the past when India’s good old ‘Taar’ is laid to rest.
Lalit Raizada is a journalist based in India.