At one time, a few decades ago, telegrams were dreaded. They usually bore grim news from afar in measured words (“father serious, start immediately”) and only sometimes had good tidings such as job appointments or greetings for joyous events such as births and marriages.

As a dramatic necessity, they were an integral part of Hindi movies. New year diaries had a page dedicated to telegrams, with a series of numbers that had to be quoted depending on the wishes a person wanted to send (for birth, marriage, success in exams, or festival greetings). In the age of instant messengers, emails and text messages, the diaries have become rare and those messages will soon be history as the telegram system has to close down in a month’s time.

In Mangalore, Rolphie Mascarenhas, Director, Kanachur Academy of General Education, related how telegrams would reach late, often defeating the purpose. When his sister moved to Mumbai, he sent a telegram to friends to receive her at the bus station. But the telegram reached two days after she reached Mumbai and she was left to fend for herself in a new city. In Paduperar village, in Bajpe, in the 1960s and 70s, people would be so terrified that they would not open the telegram. Sometimes, they were unable to read the telegram and would request the postman to read the contents. “We used to shiver as they generally brought messages of death and were rarely otherwise,” he said. However, he did get a positive news through a telegram when he got a job offer saying “Join immediately”.

P. Govinda Naik, Senior Sectional Supervisor Officiating, Central Telegraph Office (CTO), who has worked there for more than three decades, said that in 1980, a telegram cost Rs. 1.50 to send. Five years ago, the price was hiked to Rs. 28. For every additional word, Re. 1 is charged. He receives messages over phone using a web-based software where the recipient’s name and address, the message, the number of words, the price and a code (XCD-condolences, XX for death, XGM greetings), are entered. The messages are now mainly from finance companies, usually reminders about loans taken and non payment of EMIs. Some of them are about interviews and some are wishes for those who have got into matrimony. He said the 30 messengers who would deliver the messages to homes, were replaced by the postal system. K. M. Shetty, Additional General Manager, BSNL, said there is no dedicated staff for telegram related work. Four staff members do the job in addition to their regular work. With the telegram service stopping, they will be absorbed into the core services of the PSU.

‘Telegram? I haven’t heard of that’

With the telegram system about to become history, some philatelists are scrambling to get some sample telegrams to add to their collections. Vidya Baglodi, a city-based philatelist, has a collection of telegram-related material including handwritten and telexed telegrams, covers issued by various states from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.

But the tablet generation is unaware of one of India’s oldest communication services. Chethan Misquith, a student of graphic design in his 20s, said, “Telegram? I have not heard of that.”

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