Everything is silent and everyone is sleeping, wee hours in the night, the sound of the gate being opened is heard. It would be only one man at that odd hour whom people dreaded. Then in a few seconds his call of "Telegram" and knocking at the door would send shivers. For, the telegram had become so renown in the bygone days as a harbinger of sad news from a relative in another town far away.
The Posts and Telegraph Dept. was playing a very important role in communication of all kind. Beyond the decades of this mobile phone revolution, the telegram was the only dependable means of conveying especially urgent messages across this vast nation. The popularity of the telegram was because of its reliability what with dedicated telegraph operators.
Somashekar who is in his early 70s now and heads the Youth Hostels Association of India in Mysore shared his touching story on the radio during an interview a few months ago, how during his service as a telegraph operator he himself delivered a telegram at an odd hour to some family a long way away as he had read the gravity and urgency of the message that had been received from a relative of the addressee. When the message arrives during the day it is normal, but when they arrive at night the operator will be the only one or two persons on duty on the night shift. They had to brave the night-time vagaries, risk themselves from thieves and stray dogs to deliver a message. They are armed only with a torch to search the house numbers and they came on bicycles. There will be many incidents like Somashekhar's which can moisten people's eyes. Their humanitarian concern despite their job pressures needs a warm applause.
There was my own maternal uncle Shankarnarayan who joined the postal dept. as a postman and retired as a postmaster after a long service. He was also a trained telegraph operator in the 1970s. He would sometimes visit us after his work hours when he used to tell us how his wrist pained from the heavy workload of operating the Morse Key, a testimony to the popularity of the telegram service. Messages were sent in the Morse Code. Then, messages arriving had to be attentively decoded for delivery and written down before printers came into the scene. The picture on the left shows the receiver [bigger box] as well.
Wedding halls, many companies and government organizations had a "Telegraphic Address" like postal address.
Sending 'telegram greetings' to the bride or bridegroom on their wedding day in another city when the person could not attend was a wonderful thing. It was to make them feel important and a show of concern, a friendship bond. Wedding halls had its unique telegraphic address which would be printed in the invitation cards. The telegraph address [for sending telegrams saved word count in the full postal address] in short was "Grams". See in the picture to the left how this got a prominent place ["rectangled"] in wedding invitation cards. In fact, I received 3-4 greeting telegrams from good friends and well wishers at the wedding hall itself, but I could not trace them now in time to include here.
See another invitation I found at home - move your eyes to the bottom left corner "Grams".
~~| Click on the pictures to enlargify |~~
This is another morse key [image from the web]. It is to be electrically connected to the transmitter that sends the message to the other end. My uncle used to tell Katta-kadaa-kadaa-katta etc. Katta=dot, kadaa=dash. -/./.-.././--./.-./.-/-- Ignore the slash. This is "T-e-l-e-g-r-a-m" in morse code. When sending, there will be a distinct pause between the letters than between the dot or dash in a letter.
Telegraph stamps were used solely for the prepayment of telegraph fees. The customer completed a telegraph form before handing it with payment to the clerk who applied a telegraph stamp and cancelled it to show that payment had been made. See picture on the left from the Victorian Era. Later, this was stopped and a receipt issued with an dated ink stamp. Charges were on word count.
My blogger-friend Abraham Tharakan [click name to see his blog] during a recent exchange mentioned that I write a piece on this subject and sent me this Wikimidea Commons image for me. He is himself a prolific blogger.
During my radio-hobby days, when I had the lucky opportunity to monitor for the BBC around 1987, the Transmission Planning Unit used to send its monitors telegram messages to check frequencies they were surveying on the radio bands. We needed to tune in to those indicated frequencies and had to report back. It was fun. And at the same time, we got paid small sums to cover the cable and postage charges for sending our reception reports. Here are a couple of the telegrams and letters I got from the BBC.
Here is another. Note how the message is pasted. The message was printed continuously on a strip of paper that unrolled from a spool. Then the operator would cut pieces at suitable places and paste them in lines.
Here is what I had sent in one of my reports. Shown below is the receipt I was issued at the Central Telegraph Office [Sayyaji Rao Road], next to Lansdowne Buildings. This facility was available in the city only at this place.
One of the letters the BBC wrote to me. These monitors they choose were of immense help to their technical team.
At other times, we had to use the forms for rating the reception conditions. We were supposed to mail these at regular intervals. The form code was E65.
Mahatma Gandhi used the telegram service to convey important and urgent messages. Here is one he had sent to a relative of mine connected through my grandfather's brother-in-law. It was sent from Wardhaganj to Bangalore in 1940. Date is clearly seen. The message is handwritten at the telegraph office at Bangalore where it was received and delivered to "Sampige Venkatapathaiya, Advocate, Bangalore". The telegram reads:
"No question misinformation my objection on principle supported by experience Maharaja's prestige will be enhanced by doing right thing. Gandhi".
Sometime ago, Murthy, my grandfather's nephew had showed me this telegram. So I went to his house requesting for this and he kindly obliged.
Sampige Venkatapathaiya featured in a magazine and in our family photograph [cropped out some people from this]. SV - 1884-1963, renown politician and advocate, had connection with Mysore Congress from 1930-33, founder of 'Hindu Mahasabha', first Principal of Sarada Vilas College [where I studied] and many other credits besides being a renown advocate.
Now some snippets.
The arrival of a telegram was part of the story in various Kannada movie sequences also.
I used to send home a telegram "Reached safely" when I went on my cricket tours, from the nearest post office. A telegram would end the anxiety as this was the quickest mode of communication, even in the 1980s.
The shortest telegram in the English language was from the Irish writer Oscar Wilde. He was living in Paris and he cabled his publisher in Britain to see how his new book was doing. The message read: “?” The publisher cabled back: “!”
Born in Calcutta [now Kolkata] in 1850 during the rule of the British East India Company, the 'Indian Telegram dies from Technology' on 14th July, 2013, aged 163 years. A sad end to a glorious life. It is not pleasing to write obituaries, even if it is a telegram.