The fact that my late father Manharray worked for the Indian Post and Telegraph Department in the 1960s gives me some imagined primacy over others to announce the death of telegrams. India’s state-owned telecom company Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd (BSNL) has said telegrams will be discontinued on July 15.
It was in the nature of telegrams to be the bearer of out of the ordinary news. They were at once intrusive and integral to life. They were also expensive and were charged per word. People sent them only during an emergency. A postman showing up at unscheduled times invariably meant he was delivering a telegram, which more often than not announced death in the family. Growing up in the 1960s I remember some people who would start weeping even before the telegram or ‘taar’, as it was called, was opened.
Since we lived not too far from the post office, whenever we received telegrams, the glue behind those white paper strips did not have enough time to fully dry. I am sure most Indian families have their own unique telegram stories. I have many as well but rather than telling a specific story I would like to describe the family disruption that the arrival of telegrams caused.
It would begin with the postman opening the squeaky, unlubricated iron gate on a hazy yellow and annoyingly hot summer afternoon. What was about summer afternoons and bad news that they always stuck together? On noticing the postman in his khaki uniform members of the family would drop whatever it is they were doing to prepare for whatever it is that the postman was about to deliver. The postman with a fountain pen wedged behind his ear would take out a light pink folded telegram from his canvas satchel. My grandmother would go into noticeable palpitation.
The postman always wore an air of detachment around his face. He had to be agnostic to the contents of the telegrams he delivered. Oftentimes he had to read and translate the contents for those who did not understand English. In my family everyone understood English, which had its own advantages and disadvantages. The advantages were no one had to be explained. The disadvantages were that everyone had their own spin and perspective and interpretation of the deeper meanings of what a particular telegram said. For instance, if it carried the news of death in the family instant editorials about what might have happened would be offered.
If telegrams heralded good news such as childbirth or wedding or excellent academic performance, the postman would be either tipped or fed sweets or both. It would be an interesting study to find out the incidence of diabetes among the postmen of the 1960s and 70s.
If a telegram announced death, the whole family would examine it as if somehow that piece of paper was culpable. The postman would switch to an expression that was mix of defensiveness (as in ‘I am not responsible’) and empathy.
The telegraph service has been an intrinsic part of the Indian experience for 163 years. Over that period hundreds of millions of Indians have been delivered life altering news in short, terse sentences that almost seemed to reprimand. It is fair to say that the telegram was emblematic of fundamental change for so many Indians. Its discontinuation, necessitated by the great telecom revolution, has been noted by many with great nostalgia.
As I said at the beginning, since my father worked for the Indian Post and Telegraph Department I get some precedence over others. If memory serves me right, Father was rather good at telegraphing. Of course, his association with the department did not mean that when we received “Urgent Telegrams” they carried better news than when others in the neighborhood did. Death happened in our family as well, so did wedding and childbirth and college graduation.
My grandmother Shobhaben had this habit of drinking some water after a telegram was read and its full import digested. As a tribute, I would now take a sip of water.