When today I came across a story in the Hindustan Times newspaper on Sunday, the thirtieth, describing how the last telegram would be sent from the city of Delhi on July 14/2013, I was filled with a sense of nostalgia, as many of those born in the nineties would no doubt share! The newspaper goes on to describe how this would bring to an end a 163 years old service run by the BSNL. In times when telephones were scarce, and we lived in inaccessible areas in countries all over the world, the telegram was the only communication that offered an almost instant information about loved ones across the the world, well at least taking into account the time it took the postman to deliver the telegram to your residence.
The very arrival of a telegram was often a source of anxiety and curiosity because telegrams were generally sent when a close relative was very ill or had crossed the river, or some other serious news. The very act of unpacking, or rather deciphering the telegram had to be slow and deliberate! The cryptic language had to be assimilated! Instead of a full stop you wrote stop! There were not more than twelve to fifteen words in a telegram, and each word was written in a box. Perhaps the language of the SMS is closest to the cryptic kind of language that was used in a telegram.
Telegram-writing was a part of the class twelfth syllabus of the C.B.S.E. board for English in India used once upon a time! Students were told to convert given information into a telegram along with the correct format: The Receiver’s Name on top followed by the address below the name, then the message itself was put in a separate space which had individual blocks into which each word had to be written. And mind you, you had to pay dearly for each word in the telegram! After completing the message in the space labelled “message”, you went on the write the name of the sender, “not to be sent”, and the name of the telegraph office and the address from where the telegram was being sent.The greatest challenge for the student was to convey the whole message in just about twelve to fifteen words. A typical message would read: “arriving Monday first July IC 184 stop pick from airport ten morning stop bring car stop”. The marks weightage of the whole exercise was five marks!
But then, it is not just as a teacher who guided students on how to write telegrams that I feel sentimental,it is also because there was a time when the telegram was very much part of our lives! When I lived in Arbaminch in Ethiopia from nineteen seventy to nineteen seventy eight, we were in a sense cut off from the rest of the world in the sense that we had no internet, and no mobile phones. Yes, we had a landline and the number was 99. The only problem was that if you had to make an international call, or a call to any other city, you had to first book a line with the operator, and more often than not it took ages to get across. The telegram was, in such cases faster and trouble free! In times when we had to return to India after each contract, more often than not we were put on waiting list for the flight to Bombay and back to Delhi. Each day the status on the waiting list would change, and then finally one day before the flight we would be given a “Confirmed” status. It was on getting this confirmation that we would then send a telegram to my grandmother and other relatives in Delhi informing them about the date and time of our arrival. One of my Uncles lived in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and another lived in Adigrat (also in Ethiopia). We were separated by hundreds of kilometres and often getting across important information was through telegram. This included news such as the birth of a child, or when someone was arriving, or any other information. More often than not the information was mundane and routine if not sensational!
Today as the world progresses in leaps and bounds, and Moore’s law appears to be soon fading away, overtaken by the rate of progress taking place in the number of transistors can be but on a specific size of a Silicon Chip, it is more a case of the rate at which technology is becoming obsolete! Today the rate at which the quantum of information is doubling every few years is alarming enough! Can we human beings really keep up with the pace of progress in technology and amount of information with which we are being bombarded? The passing away of the telegram into the pages of history is an indication of things to come. Letter writing, which is an important part of the CBSE syllabus for English will soon be replaced by E-Mail writing. The romance of the telegram, and the scented letters will soon pass away and be replaced with other forms of communication. Today hundreds of telegrams are sent and received in the form of SMSs. or what I feel is the closest equivalent of the the telegram. The amount of traffic however has robbed the Short Message Service of the magic that the telegram used to have once upon a time. It was so rarely that you got a telegram in those days that receiving one was a moment recorded in time! I still believe that those who send SMSs. would gain a lot if they could follow some of the steps of message writing employed in writing telegrams! I guess till then we can only agree that the Mobile Phone has forever silenced the Morse Code of the telegraph! It is all the case of better technology replacing older technology, I wonder whether or not we too, as human beings would also become obsolete one day and be replaced with Robots with Artificial Intelligence! But then to wax sentimental would be a sign of weakness, something frowned upon in this world of machines and technology!
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