India bids adieu to the telegram after 163 years

The queue grew longer as the day wore on outside the Central Telegraph Office in the city that gave birth to the telegram service in India about 163 years ago.

The rush of people wanting to live the last moments of a facility sliding, by the minute, into history continued well into the late evening hours of Sunday. The office “was not expected to close for the day before midnight by when the numbers could have touched 350,” said chief superintendent, Subrata Kumar Das. Only a fraction of the employees was present to serve those choosing to send a telegram on its final day of existence. This was the result of a mass protest against the decision to terminate the services.

For customers using the service “on this historical day,” as one put it, the messages sent were the stuff that memories are made of. But the numerical shortcuts for set occasions — 16 was for “May heaven’s choicest blessings be showered on the young couple” and 100 for “Our deepest condolences” — were not of much use on Sunday. There was no code that stood for the telegram’s own demise.

“The day they stopped the telegram. One of the last ones to be sent. Keep it well.” This is what Aman Malik, in his twenties, wrote in what was his first telegram to his grandmother Naseem Malik in Agra.

“Today is the last day. I can tell you how much I love you through the telegram,” Kajari Bhattacharya said in another — meant for his two-year-old daughter in the city.

Septuagenarian Santosh Ghosh, who has done extensive research on the telegram service, does not, however, look at July 14, 2013 as the day the telegram died. “It will live on though in another form — a part of a memory….What is interesting about the telegram is how a mode a communication is so intrinsically associated with our history. Like our history, the memories of the telegram need to be cherished,” he said.

Mr. Ghosh’s book, The Sepoy Mutiny From Telegram Messages, is a historical account of India’s First War of Independence through the telegraph messages sent between 1857 and 1858.

“It was Sir William Brooke O’Shaughnessy, a physician at the Calcutta Medical College, who went to Lord Dalhousie and spoke about the necessity of telegram services in 1848. The work to lay telegraph lines started in November 1850 between Alipore Telecom Factory in the city and the Diamond Harbour Post Office,” he said.

The CTO building was earlier a Red Cross hospital and was converted to a telegraph office in 1906. Sitting in his office there, surrounded by equipment used to send telegrams in the past, is Mr. Das.

“True that this mode of communication has lost its economic viability; but the telegram had its undeniable advantage too – that of speed. The queues outside the counter have dwindled with time; the one today comprises those who will become a part of history,” he said.

“It is like the end of an era. But we always knew the day will come,” said Gour Chakraborty, who has been collecting telegrams over the past few decades and was one of those to have queued up. “In a few years from now, like philately is for stamps, the study and collection of telegrams would emerge as a distinct sphere of interest”, he added. He shot off six messages. “The contents are not as important as the date they are being sent on.”

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