BSNL has discontinued the 160-year-old telegram service. A tribute

‘Did you know,’ my husband announced one morning, ‘that the telegram is dead? I mean, it is dying?’ He quickly corrected himself. He reads the newspapers before brushing his teeth. ‘What? Telegram dead?’ I exclaimed, lapsing unconsciously into telegraphese. In case this word has stumped you, telegraphese is the name for the terse style used in telegrams. You may even say it is the forerunner of today’s SMS language or, well, textese. Believe me, this eez true.

The telegram, which had been in a state of happy hibernation ever since instant communication through emails and mobile phone messages almost completely took over its responsibilities, was jerked back into people’s consciousness by the news that its death knell had been rung. Nostalgic sentimentalists immediately got busy sending this information, sorry, info, through emails and crisp messages. Praises were heaped on the once ubiquitous telegram, its history was recapitulated and epitaphs were written.

‘What hath God wrought?’ The inventor quoted Scripture in the first telegraphic message ever sent, way back on May 24, 1844. What Samuel Morse had wrought, Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd (BSNL) has decided to shut down. People reminisced on this harbinger of news, mostly bad, but sometimes good.

They remembered the fear with which the banging of the gate or the knocking of the door in the wee hours of the night had been received long back. In those days few house had door bells and thieves never knock; so it had to be the telegraph messenger. A telegram that read: ‘Grandfather serious stop come immediately stop’, would invite immediate wails, for people could read between the telegraphic lines.

On the other hand, one that said: ‘Arriving Sunday morning stop meet station stop’, was received with smiles unless it was a heartily disliked uncle who was arriving. Curious children who took a peek at the contents and asked why stop should meet station were asked to shut up and go back to bed. Fathers groaned when they got frantic requests for money from bankrupt sons in hostels, while mothers fainted on being informed of runaway marriages.

The physicist Edward Teller sent his colleagues a telegram about the first hydrogen bomb detonation that read, ‘It’s a Boy’. Oscar Wilde (or is it Victor Hugo?) was remembered for sending the shortest telegram. Desiring to know how his new book was faring, he sent his publisher a telegram, ‘?’ and his publisher responded in kind with a telling ‘!’.

Sherlock Holmes and his zealous sending of telegrams was fondly recollected as were historic telegrams about the sinking of the Titanic, the outbreak of World War I, the successful flight of the Wright brothers and other such important events. How many countries had been conquered, battles won and lost, anticipated and prevented by this wonderful means of quick communication!

But when I heard the news, the first thought that came to my mind was, ‘What would the University of Kerala’s Examination Section do now?’ For it thrives on sending telegrams left, right and centre. When I taught my students how to send a telegram, they had groaned and the more vociferous among them had protested, ‘Why should we learn to send telegrams? Who sends them anyway?’ ‘Our University does,’ I responded with glee, happy I knew the answer to that one.

And to drive home the point, I told them they had better learn to send telegrams, just in case they got jobs at the University. Since most of them had just confessed they wanted government jobs, they couldn’t retaliate. Telegrams that read ‘Report immediately valuation camp stop’ when I was attending it anyway and ‘Send mark list immediately stop results held up stop,’ when I had already handed over the papers and mark lists to the Chief Examiner had sent shivers down my spine early in my career. Was I singlehandedly holding up the results of an entire university? But battle scarred veterans reassured me that these were routinely sent. Later I got used to them and was even glad that our University along with the army and the government was keeping the Telegraphs Department going when telegrams had become obsolete for almost everyone else. If only 5,000 telegrams were being sent a day, the University must have accounted for at least a hundred on an average.

To go back to my question, ‘What would it do now?’ Save pigeons stop opt pigeon post stop