KARACHI, July 14: As India draws curtain on the telegraph service on July 15, when the last of the telegram messages would be sent, it would bring to an end an era in the sub-continent that many relish as fond memory.
In Pakistan, the PTCL had discontinued the service seven years ago at about the same time when Western Union, the biggest telegraph service provider in the world, laid to rest its commercial messaging services on Jan 27, 2006. The internet and telephone have pushed telegram into antiquity.
While the first message sent by inventor Samuel Morse from Washington to Baltimore, on May 24, 1844 was: “What hath God wrought”, the last message should perhaps be from Mumbai to a far-off Indian village.
Veterans recall that in villages, the sight of the postman slowly peddling on his bicycle on the dusty track was one of great happiness, particularly for girls married off by their parents in big cities like Mumbai into families living in far-off towns or villages. Running half way to the postman, who often would visit after weeks and sometimes a month of an impatient wait, the village girls would fall over one another in grabbing the kindly letter from their parents. Tears welling down, memories recalled, the letter would be read over and over again.
A reassuring answer of how happy they were would be sent and the long wait would begin until the next letter arrived.
But with the arrival of the telegraph service, all that changed. Messages that took weeks and months to reach a destination by letter could be transmitted through electronic signals over wires in matter of minutes.
However, sending a telegram instead of a letter was phenomenally costlier for the telegrams were charged on a per word basis. Letters, therefore, remained relevant, except when a swift message was to be conveyed.
In villages, the arrival of a telegram would invariably be the bearer of bad news; most often the death of a dear one.
An old lady who lived in a village in the Indian Gujarat says that the solemn face of the postman as he arrived in the village would tell that he has with him a telegram.
The question would not be what the message was, but for which house in the village? And the weeping would begin even before the telegraph was opened and read.
Compassionate people, though it would cost more, would send two telegrams, the second following the first only to prepare the family for the worst: “Uncle Sattar is seriously sick”, the first would say. The second arriving hours later would convey the correct state of things, saying that the uncle had left for his heavenly abode.
Another interesting thing about telegraph messages was the art of compressing words to as few as possible, so as to cut costs.
In that the ‘baboo’ sitting outside the telegraph office would come handy. Thus a message: “Dear grandpa. Asalaam-o-Alikum. I hope all is well there. I have to inform you with deep regret that Uncle Sattar who had caught cold last year in Pune, could not recover even with the best treatment and expired. May God give you the courage to bear this loss. Your loving grandson, Abdul Jabbar”, would be slashed by the ‘baboo’ to just five words: “Uncle Sattar is dead. Jabbar”