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The telegram was the common man's communication tool, and remained so until the mobile phone became ubiquitous and cheap.
The telegram was the common man's communication tool, and remained so until the mobile phone became ubiquitous and cheap.

Telegram services finish in India STOP End of era STOP

As India pulls the plug today on the world's last telegraph service, Suryatapa Bhattacharya recalls what it was like to receive a telegram.

NEW DELHI // It was a telegram that informed us my grandfather had died, although we had a telephone in the house.

The blueish-grey rotary dial instrument, resting on its own stool in front of the bay windows in the dining room, was more of a decoration than a communications tool. It was covered with a lace doily because it was used so rarely.

The landlines in early 1980s India were so bad you could barely hear the person on the other end. When the connection was bad, you had to wait days to try again.

For long-distance calls, you had to put in a request with the operator to set up what was called a trunk call. The operator would call you several hours - or days - later, when your call was finally put through.

My uncle in Calcutta had tried several times to ring my mother in Darjeeling to tell her that their father had passed away.

I remember those calls; it was the first time the phone rang so incessantly.

My mother could not make out what my uncle was saying, even after several calls. So he sent a telegram.

Telegrams were a far more quick and reliable method of communicating important news in those days.

In our family, telegrams meant two things: someone either wanted to inform us about their travel plans, or wanted to inform us of a death.

My mother cried for days holding that piece of paper, because she had missed her father's funeral.

Most of the rest of the world had properly functioning phones by then. Someone in New York could call a relative in London to tell them their father was dead. But a few hundred kilometres was too far for the phone lines in India.

India is the last country to have an active telegraph service. It started in 1850 when the East India Company set up a line between the two key trade points of Calcutta (now Kolkata) and the Diamond Harbour, about 40 kilometres downstream on the Hooghly river.

By 1985, the state-run Indian telecom operator was delivering up to 60 million telegrams a year. But the volume has declined since then, as has the number of telegraph offices - from 45,000 to just 75. For nine years, the service has operated at a loss.

Calling them "telegraph" messages is a bit of a misnomer, anyway. The notes are no longer sent by telegraphists trained in Morse code. Instead, they are typed into a computer and sent via email, then printed out and hand delivered.

At the telegraph offices in Delhi, the telegraphists are full of stories about the good old days. One gentleman told me about how all the women in his village would follow the telegram messenger, then sit in a circle outside the door of the house where the telegram was being delivered and start wailing in anticipation of bad news.

"You don't get the same effect around a mobile phone," he said.

With the closure of India's telegraph service today, the last telegrams will be preserved to mark the occasion, said an official in Delhi.

It is a symbolic end to old India, where phones were so rare that they were status symbols. The telegram was the common man's communication tool, and remained so until the mobile phone became ubiquitous and cheap.

Farmers in remote areas can now access weather patterns on their mobiles. Anyone can collect cash from local remittance centres based on a message flashing on the screen. Entire villages no longer shudder at the sight of a messenger.

I sent my first telegram to my parents on one of the last few days that the service was open. The process took a few forms and corrections before I figured it out. It cost me 44 rupees (Dh3), which is far more expensive than a text message, but the experience was certainly a novelty.

The message was addressed to my father: "Telegram services end in India July 15 Stop End of an era Stop Love to Mom Stop".

It took four days to reach them. I was a bit worried, wondering if I should call ahead and let them know there was a telegram coming, that the news was sad, but not necessarily bad.

My parents had a shock when they received the telegram. Years of bad news had conditioned them to open telegrams with a certain degree of apprehension.

Nevertheless, my mother acknowledged the receipt of the telegram with a text message. She called the gesture "truly lovely".

sbhattacharya@thenational.ae

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