In search of the lost telegram

July 16, 2013

(Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters)

I sent my first and last telegram over the weekend, thanks to the flood of newspaper reports that warned of India’s telegraph service winding up after more than 160 years.

My curiosity was fuelled by memories of Bollywood movies from the 1960s and 70s. On receiving a telegram, the hero’s mother either fainted or treated the family to sweetmeats – depending on whether the news was good or bad.

The best known telegram in Indian fiction is probably the one in R.K. Narayan’s “Malgudi Days” collection. In a popular short story, the fictional messenger doesn’t deliver a telegram with news of a relative’s death because it could have ruined someone’s wedding day.

But my news wasn’t as momentous. My telegram was to be a souvenir, one of the few thousand dispatched on July 14, the day India shut its state-run telegraph service for good.

I sent a telegram to my mother in Dwarka, an outlying neighbourhood of New Delhi. It’s been 48 hours and she still hasn’t received it.

Even if a messenger walked the 27 kilometres from the telegraph office in the centre of New Delhi, taking breaks for samosas and tea along the way, the telegram should have reached her in a day.

Perhaps the postman is more burdened than usual. Thousands queued up at telegraph offices across the country on Sunday, mostly first-timers like me who wanted to treasure the experience. It was a muggy day and it wasn’t easy waiting for my turn in a crowded room with an ineffective air conditioner.

Two days later, I’m not so sure that it was worth the wait.

In this era of instant tweets and impatient people, the telegram was a misfit. A lot could have happened in two days: 800 million new tweets, 9.5 billion new items shared on Facebook, around 290 billion new emails.

The telegram just wasn’t meant to last. Time to move on.


UPDATE: The telegram was delivered after 80 hours and is just a photocopy of the form I filled up. Not the telegram I was hoping for.

(Follow Tony on Twitter @tonytharakan )

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