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Corporate Jul 11, 2013

The Indian telegram service will be forgotten after it STOPS today

By Venky Vembu

(This piece, which was originally published in June, is being republished since today is the last day that the telegram will be functioning)

Even in an age of smartphones and instant communication, when the art of letter-writing has been museum-ised, so to speak, singer Pankaj Udhas retains the capacity to induce wistfulness for an earlier time with his soulful rendition of Chitti Aayee Hai.

Of course, the emotion encapsulated by the song is rather more about diasporic guilt at being away for way too long from watan ki mitti, but that it should resonate even in an age of WhatsApp immediacy is in equal measure a tribute to the epistolary medium of communication in the 20th century that Uddhas alludes to.

Reuters

Reuters

No such nostalgic sentiments, however, may be induced by the news that the last Indian telegram will be sent today, beyond which the (rather more slow-paced) SMS equivalent of the pre-handphone age will come to a STOP.

In part, that's because the telegram has already become an utterly useless relic of a time when personal telecommunication channels in India were non-existent or clogged. As The Telegraph notes in an elegiac tribute, the plug has been pulled on a service that has been comatose for years now.

I can't remember the last time I sent or received one, nor can my circle of friends and acquaintances in the 40-plus age demographic. Which probably means that an entire generation has likely grown up in middle-class India without its life being touched by the Ferraris of the snail-mail age.

Additionally, telegrams will also not be missed overmuch because they were , in the long-ago time when they were more widely used, in most cases, harbingers of grim news. For sure, even happy occasions like births of bonny babies or success in examinations would set off a flurry of telegraphic dots and dashes. But on the strength of anecdotal evidence, it's fair to say that the arrival of telegrams induced more dread than good cheer.

It's, of course, petulant to blame the bearer of bad tidings, but it's also a commentary on the fact that in India there never probably existed a vibrant culture of spending good money on telegrams to engage in banter, of the sorts that has embellished telegraphic history in other parts of the world.

The story goes that an entertainment reporter working to a deadline, but mindful of the per-word billing for telegrams, cabled actor Cary Grant to enquire after his age with the message: "How old Cary Grant?" The mischievous response from Grant: "Old Cary Grant fine. How You?"

In Britain, of course, the Queen has kept up a tradition that associates telegrams with good cheer: she sends out anniversary telegrams to those of her subjects who have completed 100 years of age, or are celebrating milestone wedding anniversaries.

According to palace statistics, the Queen has, during her reign, sent out approximately 110,000 telegrams and messages to centenarians in the UK and the Commonwealth, and an additional 520,000 to couples celebrating their diamond wedding anniversary.

And in an earlier age, telegrams were often the pivots around which plots turned. Lovers, deals and wars were won or lost by telegram, as this writer notes.

In India, in an earlier time, political protest campaigns revolved around sending telegrams to leaders to make known street-level indignation. Perhaps they helped prop up a service that was long past its deadline for optimal utilisation, but the utter futility of such campaigns has rendered them obsolete today. Today, the missed call to a campaign counts as an expression of passive solidarity.

According to The Telegraph, the 1980s were the golden years for the service in India: more than 100,000 telegrams were sent and received per day - in just the Delhi main office. Today, it's barely 100,000 a day - across all of India.

With mobile phone penetration in India in excess of 900 million and growing - although that data perhaps overstates the reach - the telegram today is going the same way as the pigeon post or the bush telegraph system of an earlier time.

But no tears need be shed for the telegram, whose imminent demise in India, following up on similar winding down of the service overseas, represents the inevitable effects of creative destruction triggered by the march of communication technology. Those given to nostalgia (and who still use old-world Nokia phones) could, of course, change their settings for incoming text messages as a tribute to the old: the classic setting - with three short beeps, two long ones and three short ones -represents the Morse code for SMS.

In an endearing scene in The Sound of Music, one of the von Trapp daughters, Liesl, who is romancing the German telegram delivery boy, reads him a mock message in person. "Dear Rolfe, STOP," she says, invoking the telegraphic language. She then rushes into his arms, overcome with love, and ends her telegram. "Don't stop!"

The only thing that's unstoppable, though, is the advance of communication technology that renders relics obsolete.

by Venky Vembu

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