It’s hard to explain to a child who has always been around cell phones and the Internet what telegrams really meant while I was growing up or how exciting it was to accompany my father late in the night just once to send a telegram to an uncle who was posted in Sikkim. What we said (I can only hope it was good news that he was sending), I do not clearly remember, but I do recollect that my father had a rough paper in hand and kept trying to cut down on the words of that message.
We, of course, faced no such dilemma on 13 July when we drafted out our 9 telegrams. For Rs.25 we could send 30 words and since most of our messages said ‘Best friends forever’ or ‘We love you’ or ‘Best of luck’ or ‘Enjoy your first and last telegram’, there was really no need to have a rough paper around to trim the messages. For the last time, the telegram drafting lessons that were a part of my English syllabus back when I was in school came in handy and I remembered to add the word ‘stop’ after every short sentence we wrote in the rectangular boxes on the form.
I was stumped when my 9-year-old wanted to know why we had to use the word ‘stop’ in a telegrams instead of the period (Yahoo answers solved that mystery*) just as she had been stumped when I tried explaining why telegrams dying out was such a big deal for me.
“Why did people not just use the landline if there were no cell phones?”
“Because not everyone had a phone. And you had to book a trunk call (never mind what that was) to call people in other cities.”
“Why not just send a letter?”
“Because it took too much time especially if the distance was long.”
“Why were telegrams written in SMS style?”
“Because sending a telegram used to be expensive.”
After explaining what telegrams were and why they were being shut down and convincing her to embark on what I thought was an adventure, the nine-year-old and I trotted off to find a post office from where we could send the telegrams. I had thought the GPO at Patel Chowk would be the ideal place but we were shooed away and told head to Eastern Court, Janpath.
As we entered the small 8 foot by 8 foot space from where BSNL runs its soon-to-be-shut telegram window counter (which incidentally is also the counter where you can pay BSNL/MTNL phone bills) in Eastern Court, Janpath, around 11am, there were 10-12 people loitering around—some were seated on the chairs pondering long and hard on the message they wanted to send, others were scribbling away furiously and a couple were standing in the queue clutching a few forms. A wooden box that held about 50 blank forms was placed at far corner of the counter and you had to cut through the queue to get to it. A white board with ‘Common Telegram Messages’ in English was nailed high on the wall but none of those short and crisp messages worked for us.
Initially we picked just 3 forms—one each for the telegrams we were going to send to each other and one for a dear friend and then the 9-year-old saw the long blue board on which price details were mentioned—Rs.25 for a telegram up to 30 words and an additional rupee for every extra word. We decided on the spot to send telegrams to everyone whose address we had with us at that moment. Six more people were added and as we were scribbling on our forms, the small group of 10 people expanded in a matter of 20 minutes to a crowd of 50 or more people including pesky cameramen, reporters and photographers. And the wooden box with the forms emptied out because it looked like not a single person intended to send less than half a dozen telegrams.
In a matter of minutes the scene was chaotic “Get away from my computer and stop trying to film/photograph the telegrams I am about to send. It is against the law for you to see these,” yelled the harried BSNL employee who was manning the window to a cameraman who had sneaked up behind him. Postal employees were busy filming the rush and giving interviews; people were frantically calling “Tajinder mamaji”, “Rummy”, “Sudha” for addresses and wondering if all family member names should be mentioned in one telegram or each member deserved their own individual telegram; some were trying to figure out if ‘samaapt’ should be used instead of ‘stop’ for telegrams that were to be sent in Hindi and a few were happy to share their telegram stories with TV crews.
At half past noon, after an hour and half of filling forms, battling with cameramen not to photograph us without our permission, bearing with old aunties who thought nothing of breaking the line to get their telegrams sent first, we were handed our receipt and assured that messages would reach their destinations by 15 July, the day the 160 year old telegram service bids adieu to India.
Meanwhile, we are waiting for an employee from the postal department to ring our doorbell and 8 other doorbells to deliver our little messages of love.
*(according to http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20101219142054AAcSoi5, in the original telegraph, an operator made a series of clicks with an electric “key” that the operator at the other end of the line interpreted by listening to the sound and wrote down on paper to deliver to the recipient. There were “codes,” including Morse code, matching these clicks to letters so that both operators understood them the same way. There were no symbols for punctuation marks and hence to end a sentence the word ‘stop’ was used)