Telegrams were messengers of peace, carriers of emotional attachment, ambassadors of good relationship.
It was 11 a.m. And I was at the cash counter, being an employee of a nationalised bank in that rural branch. I had been restless since the night before. I was anxiously awaiting news on what was going to happen in the local government boys hostel, where the inmates had been kept hungry for over four days because of nil stocks. The warden had transferred the supplies elsewhere for a consideration and would not visit the place again before the next consignment of provisions arrived.
The poor maid servant was helpless. I came to know of this through a boy who along with other students used to visit my room in the village where I engaged them in their curricular and extra curricular activities. My home was a sort of free coaching centre for them.
The night before that boy from the hostel came looking pale, dull and, on enquiry, he started breaking down. On hearing that atrocious things were going on in the hostel, I drafted a simple message and advised him to quietly leave for the nearby town early next morning and send that matter by ‘wire’ to the district administration. From the moment I entered my office the next morning, I was tense and biting my nails not knowing what would happen, if at all something happened.
Around noon, a colleague who had gone out for tea came back with awesome news. I overheard him telling my branch manager: “Sir, you know what is happening in the bazaar....won’t believe, a top government official from the district headquarters has visited the hostel with his team ... looked for the warden ... made enquires and pasted on the board his suspension order ... enquired the maid to what was available in the kitchen. You know, Sir, he himself has gone to the local shops to buy fresh vegetables for providing good meals to the boys ... it seems someone has sent a telegram to the officials ... none knows who did it and I am at a loss to know who would have guided the children to do it ...”
I was speechless. A small telegram did it. It could beget the poor boys justice on the spot. The exultation those boys exhibited that evening was beyond description. But I could never, ever share with anyone the humble role I played in the whole episode that happened 32 years ago. But it is still fresh in my mind as if it happened yesterday. Salutes to you, dear Samuel Morse, for inventing this wonderful devise.
As a trade union worker, I had the opportunity and necessity to resort to telegrams so frequently two decades ago informing people of various kinds of news. On occasions, I stayed through the night in the union office to book a phonogram and keep sending multitudes of telegrams intimating candidates of their appointment in permanent vacancies, promotions or transfer orders.
And I always loved availing myself of the phonogram facility and to dial 185 for booking was a pleasant job always. First, it was manual, then it became an automatic service but there was always a human touch in taking down the message.
At first, I was struggling to spell the names of persons, places, etc., I subsequently learned how to communicate unambiguously using the standard words for the respective alphabets. A for army, D for doctor, E for English, L for lady, C for cinema and so on and so forth. And I easily learnt to say the message number, say 5 for many happy returns of the day, 21 for wishing the function every success or 25 for blessings to the newly married couple. And, of course, 100 for the deepest condolence! As for our own messages, we learnt how to be our economic best in communication as the charges were based on the number of words.
Telegrams had a life in them. They travelled with the very same feelings with which the message had been recorded. From ‘Mother serious. start immediately ...”, “Pray extension of leave”, ‘So and so expired’, ‘Arrived safely’ ... to ‘Prema got a female baby. normal delivery’, telegrams carried the quintessence of life, from birth to death, sickness to recovery and good development to a bad experience.
They were messengers of peace. They were carriers of emotional attachment. They were ambassadors of good relationship. They brought in new hopes but they took away the confidence, too. They were saviours. They were heartbreakers, too — unavoidably at times. Telegrams were used, misused and abused.
With the advent of the mobile phone, landline phone appears almost let down. Post cards, letters and other means of communication give in to SMS, email, etc. Some time ago, the last run of the steam engine made news and provoked sadness among old folks. Now it is the turn of the telegram to go. The fast-paced culture ruthlessly evicts old goods, old services, old values and even old people at every other opportunity. When the living world becomes incapacitated to offer anything exciting, the museum of antiquity gets overfilled with the collection of old items and overcrowded with visiting people. This is not to denigrate innovation. The heart of the matter is that we shall not lose our hearts.
(The writer’s email: firstname.lastname@example.org)