On the 15th of July 2013 we bade adieu, in India, to the 163 years old Telegram service in India. It was started by the British East India company between Calcutta and Diamond Harbour in 1850. Four years later it was made availabe to the general public.
It was, for a century and half, the fastest means of communication available to the common man in India and elsewhere in the world. As soon as the use of sms, Internet and Whatapp became more widespread, the demise of Telegram was just around the corner.
Telegrams used to be the harbinger of news both good and bad, happy and sad. Many a times, due to garbled transmission or reception or both or because of sender’s mistake, unintended situations would arise. It could be as comical as mix up of Greeting Telegram numbers wherein you had intended to convey ‘Congratulations on a well deserved success’; but, the recipient got it as ‘Congratulations on the new arrival’ or ‘May God shower His choicest blessings on the newly-weds.’ Or as serious as ‘Wife expired’ when you had meant to send ‘Happy Independence Day’ message. Such mix-ups had resulted in great sadness and heartburn for people until clarification arrived.
I know the case of a fauji who finally managed leave from a forward posting from where he hadn’t got leave for a long time. He sent a telegram to his wife: ‘Got leave. Reaching home 29th’. When he reached home, he found his wife in bed with another man. He was furious; but, the mother-in-law calmed him by saying she’d check up the reason for her strange conduct. Sure enough, by evening, the mother-in-law had checked and found the reason and triumphantly announced to him, “I knew there would be a simple explanation; she never got your telegram.”
In the Hindi movies, telegrams for just-married faujis used to be delivered to them on their honeymoon nights when they would have just lifted the ghunghat of their newly wedded wives. The only message of the telegram would be asking him to report to border since war had broken out. India has fought five wars with its neighbours Pakistan and China. But, if these telegrams were to be believed, everytime a fauji wedded in a movie, especially, if it was a love-marriage that the family elders hadn’t approved of, a war would breakout at about midnight. Irrespective of how far the sender’s place was, there would be jonga waiting to take him to the war with the wife standing in the doorway of their house bidding him a tearful goodbye. Some would even run behind the jeep barefeet and remind him that Love was what they had between themselves and War was between the two countries and he, over a period of time, shouldn’t get these facts mixed up. One telegram had the power to shatter their dreams. One telegram spelt the difference between Love and War. I give you two consecutive scenes from the Hindi movie Border: the honeymoon scene and the dressing up for reporting to unit scene after the telegram:
In my case, I wasn’t called to the border, but, was sent to Andaman & Nicobar islands with the then Prime Minster Rajiv Gandhi and his Italian wife Sonia embarked on my ship Ganga. Their togetherness was at the cost of my and my Indian wife Lyn’s togetherness when she was expecting our second child. The news of our younger son Arun arriving was sent by her as a telegram which was received in Communication Centre (COMCEN) at Mumbai, who in turn broadcast the message and the ship received it. In my forenoon watch, the CO read out the message to me and I closed my eyes and said a silent prayer for them whilst thanking God that He made Life and He made Telegrams.
Unlike our Army counterparts, manpower in the Navy has always been scarce and hence not only that most naval personnel serve far away from their homes, they get leave with great difficulty and reluctance. Many innovative means are devised to first obtain leave and then to ask for extension. One of the telegrams received on my ship from a sailor’s family read: MOTHER SERIOUS. COME HOME FOR DIWALI. There was another similar one received on a sister ship: FATHER BREATHING HIS LAST AWAITING YOUR ARRIVAL FOR CHRISTMAS.
The most innovatively genuine Telegram received asking for extension of leave by a sailor was on board Vikrant where I was initially posted after my Subs Courses. This had us in splits. It read: REQUEST EXTENSION 15 DAYS, WIFE NOT YET SATISFIED. After everyone had vented feelings ranging from extreme anger to pity, the XO (whose Christain motto was ‘It is better to be kind than right’), sent the following historic telegram: EXTENSION GRANTED UNTIL WIFE SATISFIED.
This XO was decidedly a soft XO. There was a hard-boiled-egg of an XO who was aporoached by a sailor for leave having received a telegram from his wife that read: EXPECTING OUR CHILD. COME HOME URGENTLY. The XO read the telegram, opened his table drawer and pulled out another telegram that read: DON’T SEND SOHAN SINGH LEADING SEAMAN ON LEAVE DURING MY DELIVERY AS HE IS A DRUNKARD AND WON’T BE OF ANY HELP.
Naturally, the first telegram received by Sohan Singh was redundant in view of second telegram received by XO from Sohan Singh’s wife. Sohan Singh was about to leave resignedly when his inner conscience goaded him to tell the truth, “Sir, you and I are the world’s best liars; you see, Sir, I am not even married.”
Now that BSNL has stuck the death knell of the Telegram, I am sure life would have undergone a sea change for Indians in general and for our faujis and sailors in particular. What would Diwali, Holi, Christmas, Pongal would be without FATHER EXTREMELY SERIOUS telegram?
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