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In less than 24 hours, the telegram will cease to exist. The service, which started in India 163 years ago from Kolkata, will, like the steam engine, become a footnote of history from Tuesday. In no uncertain terms, it marks the end of an era.

I am sure the telegram has touched most of us in some form or the other. It would undoubtedly bring forth feelings of nostalgia. But it is much more than that. It defines the trend that is changing the way communication is reordering our lives. Ever since I came across Frances Cairncross’s compelling work, The Death of Distance: How the Communications Revolution Is Changing our Lives, I have wondered and marvelled at how our lives have transformed (and continue to transform), even in a country like India, which is still so digitally challenged. The death of the telegram is just another chapter.

My first memory of a telegram, presumably because my parents were migrants in Delhi, was the news about a death, grave illness or birth of someone in our extended family. And, more often than not, the postman’s (not the regular mail delivery guy) knock would come after midnight. It is like a late night telephone call can only be, in most instances, the harbinger of bad news.

The telegram itself was a strip of at best two-three strips of paper clumsily stuck on a sheet of paper that was folded to look like an envelope. The message was typed out, often with some very obvious typos, especially when it came to spelling out names. Brevity was the key as each word would cost, unlike say the inland letter, that my parents sent out dutifully every week, which cost some five or ten paisa. In fact, till such time (less than 10 years ago) the telephone directory for the landline used to carry a list of standard telegram messages as suggestions for consumers.

The telegram was a colonial legacy. The first telegraph line in India was laid by the East India Company in 1850 to connect Kolkata and Diamond Harbour, a distance of 43.5km. If history has it right, seven years later it served as a life saver for the British troops who were completely blindsided in the first round of revolt—the 1857 mutiny—by Indian soldiers. But for a telegram, which reached in time for the British to rush fresh troops to the various flashpoints and successfully crush the rebellion, the history of India would have read very differently. (More fascinating details can be gleaned from my colleague Sidin Vadukut’s piece here)

After Independence, it worked best in an era when distances were not easily overcome. The increased transport connectivity, first between cities and then between cities and villages on the one hand and the cellphone revolution on the other, rapidly diminished the importance of the telegram. It is exactly what Cairncross had forecast in her book, first published in 1997—distance would cease to be a relevant factor in the conduct of business and personal lives as new communication technologies take root with clicks replacing the bricks economy.

The telegram is just one among the many casualties in this evolution. Online transactions mean that we no longer queue up in a bank to draw or deposit money. We can purchase consumer goods without wading through a market or book airline and train tickets without taking a half-day from work—all instances of the process of disintermediation.

Yes, it is the end of an era and we are entitled to our share of nostalgia. But it also reaffirms the era that began a while ago. Thanks to Aadhaar, India’s ambitious programme to arm every resident with a unique identity number, now even identity will become portable. So far, it was rooted in your so-called permanent address, making normal life almost impossible for migrants—rich and poor. Brace for fresh transformation of our lives.

And, yes, if you still feel nostalgic about the telegram, you have two options:

One, log onto http://www.telegramstop.com/ and send out a classic telegram lookalike to anyone, anywhere in the world for a charge of $7.15. Second, open a twitter account and tweet out a message 140 characters long for free.

So, is the telegram really dead or assuming a new avatar?

Anil Padmanabhan is deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comments are welcome at capitalcalculus@livemint.com

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