This Dirge Is Set To Dit Dit Dah Dah

For Outlook magazine, 29 July 2013

The other day I sent a telegram to H.M. Queen Elizabeth, c/o the British High Commission, New Delhi. RETURN KOHINOOR, I wrote. If it didn’t reach her, it is her fault. Her Majesty’s government gave us both the telegram and the Indian state that cannot do something as simple as deliver a telegram. Good that it’s dead.

Most of the telegrams I sent out to friends didn’t reach them, and this has been the experience of others too. One sent to me by a friend reached me three days later—so much for a medium whose raison d’etre is urgency. Another telegram a friend sent me reached me 10 days late—by ordinary post! Neither of them came with someone ringing the doorbell, so I could at least imagine the telegram era. They were just left outside.

I sent a telegram to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, c/o the Pakistan High Commission in Delhi. (The international telegram service was discontinued in 2011.) I wrote: “INDIAN MANGOES ARE THE BEST. SEND PAKISTANI MANGOES IF YOU DISAGREE.”

I had decided to take his silence for acceptance of defeat, but now I don’t even know if he got my telegram. (A little birdie tells me Manmohan Singh recently sent mangoes to Sharif.)

There’s this anecdote whose ownership is disputed between Mark Twain and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. One of them sent a telegram to 12 writers saying, “Flee at once—all is discovered”, and some actually fled. I sent the same to some friends. Nothing happened!

That the 900 employees of the telegraph department are unsurprisingly inefficient at delivering telegrams is not the only reason why mourning the end of the telegram is pointless. The Morse code, operated by the iconic telegraph ‘key’—the technology behind the telegram—was long abandoned in India. Since then, there have been four-five technological revolutions that changed the way the telegram was sent in India. Which means that the telegram of yore we are mourning was long dead anyway. No ‘technology’ died at 10 pm on July 14, 2013.

Even if they reach you, there is little joy in opening a telegram and finding out your friend’s words typed out on a blank paper because, for telegrams within the city, the telegraph office found a simple way of reducing their work. They just photocopy the telegram form you filled and send it out! And why does the 30-word limit include your own name and address?

Technology also rendered obsolete the telegram codes, which were useful for phonogrammers. You could call up the telegraph office on your BSNL landline, name a set number on the code, and they would type the corresponding words. My favourite is number 15 for the Indian-Eng­lish ‘LOVING GREETINGS’.

The telegrams sent out of town are typed out on a software with a fancy long name. This is again pointless, because the telegraph office could simply send an e-mail to their counterparts in the other city, who could print it out and deliver it by hand. India Post actually does run a service like that, and India Post is relatively reliable when it comes to delivery.

When the news first broke, I went to the main telegraph office opposite Janpath hotel and met officials who had worked there for decades. They told me about 5,000 telegrams are sent out every day, and most (65 per cent) of them are sent by—you guessed it—the government. Even if the entire world starts wearing Google Glass, Bharat sar­kar will resist change. I saw one telegram sent by the Indian Nursing Council to a nursing college in Kurukshe­tra informing them of an upcoming inspection. Really, Indian Nursing Council? You haven’t discovered e-mail yet?

The telegram officials explained that the telegram is seen as an almost quasi-legal document. Armed forces personnel use it a lot to procure leave because somehow an SMS saying “grandmother serious” does not have the same force of truth as a telegram saying ‘GRANDMOTHER SERIOUS’. In India, the present can be a foreign country.

An anti-corruption activist in Lucknow sent a telegram to the prime minister, president et al, threatening to fast unto death if the telegram service were stopped. Marked “objectionable”, his telegram wasn’t delivered. The reverse of the telegram form warns you that the telegram may not be ‘accepted’ if it is in violation of Indian Telegraph Rules. Anti-state sentiments, threats of violence and obscenities are not allowed. There are people who try to send mot­her-sister expletives to politicians, I was told.

I called the activist up and asked what his problem was, because the telegram officials were taking his effort as a suicide threat. The activist explained that sending a telegram to a high court, saying that a certain person is in illegal police detention, is taken as a writ petition. Ah, so that’s why the Supreme Court compound has a telegram office! The Indian judicial system will indeed have a hard time replacing this way of ensuring  people’s rights from the police.

Not every corner of India has mobile phone connectivity, but there’s enough of it everywhere so that an urgent message can reach sooner than a telegram. Why then did a few hundred people daily use the telegram still to send death notices? One official claimed this was proof the telegram was relevant. All your mobile revolution, he said, was overhyped.

Perhaps it will be more sorely missed by inter-caste lovers who elope and send a telegram to their parents to inform them of the arrival of the 21st century. They would have done well to send a similar telegram to the police and the National Human Rights Commission, fearing honour killing and parental abduction. The only ones I feel sad for are the political ranters, who would send their missives to politicians, on what’s wrong with how the country is run. The fact that they still used the telegram matched the quality of their political understanding.

These were some of the reasons why telegram officials said the service shouldn’t be stopped, despite an annual Rs 135-crore loss. When all else failed there was history. Did you know the role the telegram played in the 1857 mutiny? Yes of course, the British used it well to suppress the rebellion. The rebels did have their own ways of escaping such new-fangled ways of relaying information, such as passing on chapatis. What was the role played by this office in the 1975 Emergency, I asked them. They fell silent. “Nothing much,” one of them said. “Only the reports sent out by foreign correspondents were vetted”.

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