For more than 160 years, lives across India and indeed the world have been upended by the knock of the Khaki clad worker with a telegram. Messages of joy, sorrow and success came in signature yellow envelopes. Families used to announce births and deaths, their departure and arrival timings when travelling. Most appointment letters or transfer orders came by telegram. It served as a messenger for the troops stationed on the border and the remote people. Telegram receipt has also been presented as evidence in court.
There were few lighthearted telegrams too that were exchanged. George Bernard Shaw, cable to Winston Churchill: “please attend first night my new play. will hold two tickets for you.bring friend if you have one.”
Churchill’s reply to Shaw: “Impossible attend first night. Will attend second night if you have one.”
“Dakiya Daak Laya”, a much-awaited call for the thousands of cities and villages across India is immortalized in a song by Kishore Kumar in the 1977 film Palkon Ki Chhaon Mein. The postman (Rajesh Khanna) on his cycle was an iconic figure in India in an era before the Internet, carrying news of friends, family and the single most powerful connection with the outside world:
Dakiya Dak Laya, Khushi Ka Payam, Kahi Kahi Dardanak Laya, Indar Ke Bhatije Ki Sali Ki Sagai Hai, Mama Aapko Lene Aate Magar Majburi Hai, Dakiya Dak Laya, Dak Laya……
As early as 1935, UK Post Office sponsored a documentary ‘NIGHT MAIL’- a classic of its genre. The documentary with W.H.Auden’s poetry portrays the journey between England and Scotland of a postal train during the night – while in one of its carriages staff sorts out the mail for delivery the next day.
Like the Internet of today, the telegraph changed how business and industry was done, because of the speed of communication and the lack of physical barriers. At the same time the telegraph intensified the carnage in warfare as countries were able to direct their armies in near real-time using the technology. Also similar to today, the telegraph allowed news from all over the world to flood into newspapers, overwhelming them with
Sadly, the era of the telegram is gradually coming to an end. Germany is the latest country in the world to close down its telegram facilities only a few weeks ago. After 162 years of connecting people, India disbanded the world’s last major telegram service and its legions of cycle-borne postmen in 2013.
In the days before mobile phones and the Internet, the telegram network was the main form of communication, with 20 million messages dispatched from India in 1947 alone, and reaching 50 million in 1980s.
However, by 2013, the number of telegrams dwindled to 40,000 and most of them were by Indian government departments conveying administrative messages to remote parts of the country.
Telegrams disappeared in the UK as early as 1982.
The advent of new telecommunication technologies and social media, this service of sending telegram has become a relic in 21st century.
Samuel Morse, inventor of the Morse code, sent the first telegram from Washington to Baltimore on May 26, 1844, to his partner Alfred Vail to usher in the telegram era that displaced the Pony Express. It read “What hath god wrought?”
Morse code originally had only capital letters and no punctuation. This generally was not much of a problem, but during the First World War when telegrams were widely used in the military, a misunderstood message could be disastrous. The custom arose of using the word STOP between sentences in military telegrams so that any ambiguous phrases would not be misinterpreted. The custom caught on with the public. Even after punctuation was introduced, people continued fashionably using STOP between sentences in telegrams even though they didn’t have to.
The birth of the telegraph meant that the possibilities of communication exploded; by the mid-19th century one could go to a telegraph station and have a message sent further and faster than had ever been possible. The whole idea of what was “beyond earshot” changed inexorably.
Telegrams reached their peak popularity in the 1920s and 1930s when it was cheaper to send a telegram than to place a long distance telephone call. Telegrams were used to announce the first flight in 1903 and the start of World War I. During World War II, the sight of a postman was feared because the War Department used the telegram to notify families of the death of their loved ones serving in the military.
The shortest telegram exchange on record is Victor Hugo’s with his publisher: “?”, he telegrammed when inquiring about sales of his latest book. The publisher replied “!”
John F Kennedy joked during his 1960 presidential campaign that he had received a telegram from his father:
Dear Jack: Don’t buy one more vote than necessary. I’ll be damned if I pay for a landslide.
The first telegraph message in India was sent from Kolkata to Diamond Harbor on 5 November 1850 – a distance of 50 kms- on experimental basis. In the year 1853, the first telegram service in the country started between Agra and Kolkata. In addition to sending messages and sending documents by the British government, telegrams were also demanded from abroad by putting submarine cables in the sea. Agra was Asia’s largest transit office when Telegram service started. The British East India Company used the Telegram and in 1854 the services were opened for public after telegraph lines were laid across the country.
Taar was the fastest mode of communication in India bringing urgent messages. Since 1850 to 1902, the telegrams were sent through cable lines, but in 1902, the Indian system went wireless.
The British also used telegram to crush the spirit of our revolutionaries. It is recorded in history that when our troops from Meerut left for Delhi in the revolution of 1857, the Lothian Road Office of Delhi got its prior information by telegram. Due to this telegram, the revolution was crushed.
Maharaja Hari Singh sent cables to the Pakistan government asking it to stop raiding bands from entering his princely state. But he was snubbed as Pakistan launched an all-out strike.
Ties gone sour: Bose with Gandhi. Strangely, shortly after hearing of Bose’s death in Taipei, Gandhi fired off a telegram to Satish Chandra Bose, Netaji’s eldest brother, saying, “Don’t Perform Shraddh.”
Many prominent Gandhians including Gandhi’s son Manilal sent telegram to government of India seeking clemency for the Mahatma’s assassins. They pointed out that Gandhi wanted to abolish death penalty.
During the 1965 war, the Johnson administration conveyed a tough message through telegram to Pakistan for it should not portray itself a victim, for which it itself was to be blamed: “We must view India’s attacks across Border overall context and events Past few weeks stop It is Clear from un Secretary General report that Immediate crisis Began. With Substantial Infiltration From Pakistan Side.”
Fortunately, it is not quite the end of telegram services. This heritage services continue in many places and telegrams are still used for specific purposes in some countries (in Argentina, you are supposed to resign from your job by telegram) – but the final STOP is looming. What a tragedy.
The question is can WhatsApp / messenger texts ever capture the air of urgency and excitement that a TAAR did in its reign of over 160 years.
And don’t we miss the hilarious telegrams that got exchanged like this one: A Junior Commissioned Officer of the Indian Army who was not too familiar with English language sent a telegram to Gen Krishna Rao when he assumed the office of the Army Chief in June, 1981: ”Sir Sending My Heartiest Congratulation alongwith my Wife.”
(The author works for reputed Apeejay Education, New Delhi)
End of Tar Era