A Tribute to Telegram

Hundreds of people thronged the telegraph offices to send their last telegrams to friends and family on July 15th, 2013. When the telegram counter closed that night at 11.45 the telegram passed into history. Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited had decided to discontinue the service which started the Indian telecom revolution in 1850.

the telegram

The first telegram was sent by the American painter Samuel Morse, from Washington DC to Baltimore on May 24, 1844. ‘WHAT HAS GOD WROUGHT’. This is not about apocalypse this was the text of the first telegraphic message and the sender believed that the telegram was immortal.

In India, the telegram, popularly called Taar, became operational in 1850. The telegraph line started for the use of the British East India Company. As technology never discriminates telegram also helped both the ruler and the ruled by dispatching information at a speed that was considered miraculous at that time. It helped Indians in their struggle for freedom and it helped the British to suppress it. It also helped them in the matters of administration. Many telegrams of that bygone era have been preserved for posterity and would probably fetch a greater price at auction now that telegraph system has become a relic of the past.

Those who grew up in this era of fast messaging would never know what power the iconic telegram wielded in its heyday. The small string of words in capital letters on a white or pink piece of paper could send shock waves. Telegram meant urgency, speed, brevity. It arrived when least expected, sometimes even in the dead of the night sending the receiver in a flap. When the postman called ‘TAAR’ people went weak in the knees dreading something untoward. They forgot the work in hand. This telegram made people disregard everything else. Such was its shock value. It’s speedier successors can never boast of making such impact.

Very often it brought some grave news like ‘MOTHER SERIOUS COME SOON.’ or ‘GRANDFATHER PASSED AWAY.’ or imperious demands like ‘SEND MONEY’. Sometimes a telegram also served as a means to play truant. In an anecdote, an officer told that very often during wedding season they were shown telegrams saying, ‘MOTHER ILL. SEE FACE’ which meant the recipient had to leave to have the last glimpse of the dying person. But telegrams brought glad tidings too like the birth of a child, success in the examination or congratulatory messages.

Not long ago there used to stand a board in the Post and Telegraph office with standard telegraphic messages for the benefit of the sender. Not long back there used to be a question in X standard English question paper ‘Write a telegram …’. Students were taught the value of words as each letter added to the cost. They were told to write ALL CAPS which is something against modern internet etiquette. See, etiquette also change with times and so does the curriculum. Now they ask ‘Write an email …’.

For telegram, the end did not come suddenly. Smarter electronic communication had already stolen its thunders. This once fast and furious fellow had long retired from the public life giving way to worthy successors. Now that the legendary telegram is no more we salute a life well lived.

Images bbc.co.uk, papertruly.com