One hundred and sixty-three years after the first telegram was sent from Calcutta to Diamond Harbour by William O’Shaughnessy, the telegraph machine will type out its famous last words on July 15, 2013. The government, alarmed at BSNL’s Rs 1.8 lakh-crore losses, announced that it couldn’t bear the cost of nostalgia any longer. You might want to save one of those pink envelopes with the strips of paper bearing cryptic messages in typewriter font for nostalgia, which often fathers collector’s items. Progress is the heart of civilisation and nostalgia is its soul. The telegram once bound India together. In the colonial days it was used by the East India Company to govern vast swathes of land through speedy information, and was immensely helpful in the suppression of the 1857 Mutiny by informing the British about rebel troop movements and helping to coordinate their own.
The telegram was also part of ordinary lives. It brought news of arrivals and departures, of weddings and births, and declarations of love from romantically inclined students. It even had Twitterish wordology: the first 30 words cost Rs 28 and it was Rs 1 per word thereafter. Now, with the end of the telegram — postal stats show that now only around 5,000 of these are sent out every day — a generation marks the end of its high noon.
Ironically, Darwin is god. Everything makes way for something smarter, faster and more efficient. The incunabula was superseded by the Gutenberg press; scrolls painted and gilded by ancient monks live behind temperature-controlled glass cases. Cars replaced horse-carts. Jet planes left zeppelins behind. Guns replaced swords. Email replaced letters. In short, skill and painstaking effort has been replaced by mass utility. In the process is lost the charming rituals of ordinary lives. Sending a telegram is about atmosphere. First, a visit to the telegraph office is mandatory. Like with a courier, you cannot place the order from home or simply log into an email account. In villages and small towns, before cellphones became as common as coconuts, a post office was an important terminus of gossip and news.
A letter in an unfamiliar handwriting or an airmail envelope would be enough to generate frantic scuttlebutt. The recipient would be the subject of much scrutiny. Post offices have a particular smell: of ink, paper, glue and old wood. There would always be men of indeterminate age wearing spectacles with thick lenses, a little sallow perhaps from lack of sun, sitting behind counters doing something so important and Confucian that it seemed the very fate of empires rested on their concentration.
It was these worthies who examined you minutely before passing a telegram form through a dovecote window. It made you feel that the paper had the gravitas and quirky mystique of a shabby imperial document.
The telegram was a heartbeat experience; its arrival somehow portending exciting and unusual news. In the age before mobiles and the Internet, it was also faster than posting a letter — another nostalgia-bound relic of modern times. You could expect it to arrive the next day. In those days that was fast.
Speed is a necessity of the times we live in. It is the author of Life decaf — throwing out the things that supposedly slow it down. Life is in instant code, devoid of the little rituals that make it memorable. The charm of Malgudi days, the romance of Feluda or the bucolic realism of Prem Chand is an alien experience today. In R K Narayan’s and Satyajit Ray’s India, people rode Premier Padminis and listened to Vividh Bharati. They waited for the few hours Doordarshan showed Krishi Darshan and Chitrahaar. Nostalgia, however, has a tendency to romanticise the past and demonise the present. Premier Padminis are uncomfortable, inefficient rumblers and Krishi Darshan a socialist somnambulist’s serving.
The telegram now is almost useless as a means of communication. It has had its run. Yet, as the French say, when you say goodbye you lose a little of yourself. It’s that loss that tugs at the heartstrings.