There were times when communication was still tedious, and people more responsible with it. Long before the days of waiting for years for a landline and listening to cricket commentary on the radio, we relied on telegrams. I still remember the day the telegram’s ‘retirement’ was announced, after having served as the harbinger of good and bad news for 163 years. In an attempt to embrace the taar, which my parents so fondly recall, I remember rushing to the BSNL office to post our first and last telegrams before the July 15 deadline in 2013.
It was a pleasant surprise to see about 10 people in a queue waiting to wire their telegrams. My friends and I enquired about the format. We couldn’t simply write it the way we wrote telegrams in school — each word in block, followed by ‘STOP’ after every word, sticking to the 25-word limit! The atmosphere in the office was jovial, with the excitement marred by the slightest tinge of melancholy on the faces of the staff.
Customers seemed to be in a hurry, not sure when the staff might decide to stop the service since it was the last day. Everyone seemed to be doing it for one reason: an era was coming to an end, and this was the perfect time to be a part of history. Everyone had about eight-nine telegrams with them. Reporters interviewed customers as well as the staff, while photographers clicked away furiously, not sure how long they had. I mentioned how my father used to send out telegrams, like a pre-designed template, ‘No 16’ on weddings and ‘No 9’ for birthday wishes.
After filling out the telegrams, we went for the word count, following which the telegrams were officially ‘booked’. It was amusing to see people paying homage to the telegram by hanging garlands around the big ‘Telegram’ board, wishing it peace after retirement! There was a homely, inviting atmosphere in the air. Employees teased one another, and their children came along to help on the last and busiest day. Some staff members were lined up for a group photograph, but there were a few who refused to budge from their seats, dedicated to sending out the taar — such dedication largely unseen in government offices. One employee in particular seemed perturbed about the termination of the telegram services. The staff members had 15-20 taar booked to their name as well, to be sent out to friends and family as keepsakes.
I had forgotten of the existence of the telegram until I read about its termination. For much of India’s population, it was the most important means of fast, effective communication. The taar-babu used to be revered in a village. The fact that about telegrams worth Rs 75 lakh were sent each year is a testimony to its popularity.
But times change, and change is good, we are told. I posted my last telegram to my best friend, hoping that we would read it together in a coffee house, decades down the line. It read: ‘TELEGRAM STOP STOPPED STOP’.
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