By Roopinder Singh
MY father never opened a telegram, not if he could help it. A deeply ingrained attitude, developed and nurtured in the early decades spent in his village, Mithewal, had convinced Giani Gurdit Singh that telegrams were harbingers of bad news.
The fact that he had a fair share of telegrams coming his way, and most of them were positive messages, did little to assuage his bias against the magic of “Morse”. Some were important, some not, but hesitation could always be seen in the way my father handled them. As such, we often would intercept them and convey the contents so that he would not have to open them. He never asked for it, but then he never had to.
As a family, we had to deal with a deluge that we were happy to contend with — many congratulatory messages from all over — when Mrs Inderjit Kaur, my mother, was appointed Vice-Chancellor of Punjabi University, Patiala. I have been going through them these days as I work on a Festschrift that we hope to finish by her 90th birthday, which is coming soon. A highly-organised person, she has kept them in files, tagged and annotated. Some of the names belong to notables of the past, most are senders who she felt were notable in her life — her family, students and colleagues.
As I read them, I marvel at how much meaning and emotion the staccato sentences conveyed. Telegraphs, which will no longer be a part of our life, had urgency and a certain definiteness about them. For the families of soldiers, these were all too often harbingers of bad news, cancelled leave or worse. For newspaper men, these were the very soul of communication. For ordinary people, they brought in news from faraway lands. They were the fastest way to get messages across.
So convinced was I of the effectiveness and speed of the telegraph system that on my maiden trip to London in the mid-1980s, I sent a telegram to my host, indicating the date and time of the arrival of my flight. Landing at Heathrow airport, I was rather disconcerted to find that no one was there to receive me. I took some change from an impeccably turned young woman behind a counter and tried to call my friend using a nearby pay phone. I would get a recorded message and the call would just not go through. My desperation was evident by the time I went to the counter to get some change for the third time. “Bhaaji, tusi bare pareshan lagde ho,” commented the girl in chaste Punjabi. Even as I came to terms with her Western attire and rustic Punjabi, I poured out my tale of woe to her.
“Show me the number,” she said. I did and found out that I had been dialling the area code all the time, which is why I had been getting the wrong message. On her advice, I went to the payphone and retrieved a handful of coins that I had deposited earlier, which had collected in a receptacle. I dialled again, sans the area code, and reached an answering machine, but no friend at the other end of the phone.
By now I was a little more confident and took the tube to my friends’ house, which I found locked. On this nice and sunny day, I decided to take a nap near the entrance, only to be woken up by a pair of Bobbies who wanted to know what I was doing there. They checked my papers and directed me to wait for my friend at a nearby coffee shop.
Eventually my friend showed up and I was made more than welcome. I called home instead of sending the usual “Arrived safely. Letter follows” telegram. Two days later, I answered the door and was given a telegram…one that I had sent intimating my friend about my arrival details! “My God, telegrams are more efficient and prompt in India,” I said, and thanked my stars that I had called home to confirm my arrival in London, for once agreeing with my father’s bias against this medium of communication.
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