Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Telegram critical, reach immediately!

Along with the death of old technologies a part of our culture dies and our sense of belonging undergoes a change. Isn't this true when typewriters were shelved, when landline telephones gave way to mobile phones and now it's time to perform the last rites of the telegram. These are things we grew up with. We listened to songs on postman delivering letters, we heard movie dialogues on telegrams like "chitthi ko taar samajhna aur jaldi aana..." and we had the hero and the heroine singing romantic songs across telephones. While my parents' generation listened to songs like "mere piya gaye Rangoon kiya hai wahan se telephone..." my generation heard songs like "daakiya daak laya..." Sadly today neither Rangoon exits (it's Yangon) nor does the classic black dial-type telephone nor does its tring tring and postmen are such a rarity!

So this is the inescapable order of evolution and change one adapts to and we seem to be witnessing change like never before, with things getting dated at the drop of a hat. From this perspective, telegram did survive for long, serving us for 163 long years. And it's soon to be a part of history on 15th July 2013. Well, the present generation may not even be able to understand the significance of the telegram and its legacy.

This was when getting a phone connection was a luxury and there was no other means to communicate long distance other than posts. This was when we used to wait for the postman to hear from relatives and friends. This was when letter writing was an art and composing a telegram was a science (demanding brevity of message and economy of words). During those days it was typical to receive telegrams for urgent communication. Not to mention the trepidation with which we received the telegram and opened and read the message, expecting some sad news. Here is the list of standard coded telegraphic messages and greetings.
We used to live on the CIEFL  (now EFLU) campus and we never received posts at home; the posts were sorted out and delivered to the staff members in the office itself before lunch time (for morning post) and before office closing time (for evening post). So, we would wait till my father came home for any letters and greeting cards from relatives and friends. But, it was a different story with telegrams or wires. Telegrams were delivered at home. The postman would normally ring the doorbell and sometimes shout “telegram...”and I remember the apprehensive feeling - not knowing whether it was good news or bad. As it turned out often - the news was mostly related to some family member being critically ill or passing away. Of course there was some good news too, like someone getting blessed with a child or someone visiting us and so on. My other connection with the telegram was the location of the campus near Tarnaka which literally means the Telegraph Office.

As a kid, I remember accompanying my father to the telegraph office to send greetings for weddings and other occasions. "Twenty five" would be the standard coded message he would send which was de-coded as "Convey our blessings to the newly married couple.” Much before texting and SMS came into existence, telegrams have taught us the economy of text and accuracy of meaning with messages like "reached safely" or "call immediately" or "arriving tomorrow."

My last experience with a telegram was the one sent by my father when I was in Bangalore, staying with a friend during my student days. It said “your presence required immediately" and when I read it, I went cold with fear not knowing the context and guessing what really had happened during my absence. This was the problem with telegraphic messages - they were so cryptic that it was difficult to decipher the context or the reason. I had to immediately get in touch with my parents to find out what had happened and why they had to send a telegram.

What else could my father do when there was no phone at my friend's house in Bangalore and posting a letter could take long. If I remember right, the reason for the telegram was not so important or urgent - it had  something to do with my presence at Open University exams invigilation.  My father, being a strict disciplinarian and over-cautious about my professional concerns, found telegram to be the best way to tell me about a professional issue! Simply can't imagine how his mind worked at that moment!

I'm sure all of us had some nervous and emotional moments with the telegrams. In another instance, one of our uncles who was critically ill had passed away and we received the telegram conveying the news. And my father was in the office when we received the telegram, so the challenge was to break the news carefully, as it would disturb him emotionally. So we had to ‘hide’ the telegram till he had his evening tea and relaxed, only them we told him about the death.

Telegram does sound anachronistic in today's fast paced world. However, let's not forget that there were millions who depended on this one-way communication tool for immediate long distance messaging. For thousands of bicycle pedaling postmen it was a means to connect with their customers socially and emotionally.