By Gurmukh Singh
TORONTO: So the 163-year-old telegram said goodbye to India on Sunday (July 14).
Alas and alack!
As I read people in India rushing to post offices to send their one last telegram, the news brought back my memories of the good old telegram.
Introduced in 1850 by the East India Company, telegram quickly came in handy for the colonial rulers to snuff out the Mutiny of 1857 and later it helped Indian nationalists organize their activities. Taar, as telegram used to be called, was the only mode of communication with the world for over a century.
In that sense, the telegram was the biggest thing in those days. Stories abound how Indian freedom fighters would first snap telegram lines of the British rulers to disrupt their communication. Even in the very famous Punjabi song Jagga Jatt – who attacked the British in Lyallpur – there are words `taaran khadak gayian” (means telegrams criss-crossed among the British).
So much so that telegrams used to be presented in courts as a piece of valid evidence during British rule. I was reading how 20 million telegrams criss-crossed the Indian sub-continent during the days of the Partition, enabling people to remain in touch.
I remember from my childhood how whole communities used to be stirred by the arrival of a telegram or taar. It brought both good and bad news.
But when I started my journalism, the telegram was virtually dead except in some far-flung areas. However, I got my chance to send my news (despatch as they used to call it in old days) via telegram to my Times of India office once! Only once!
That happened in January-February 1998 when I was sent from Delhi to join our Calcutta-based correspondents to cover the parliamentary elections. I remember taking an evening Jet Airways flight to Calcutta (it was yet to be renamed Kolkata – in 2001). West Bengal cricketer Arun Lal was sitting behind me and kept talking all the time to a fellow cricketer.
That was my first visit to Calcutta, and I spent my first night at the old Grand Eastern Hotel (now called Oberoi Grand). The next day brought a bit of shock when I got out and I saw men pulled rickshaws. I had seen them in photos, but here was the real deal. Thank goodness, the West Bengal government banned them in 2005.
So I joined our team, and started my assignments from Midnapore where the late CPI leader Inderjit Gupta was the candidate. Since the Communist stalwart had never lost the election from there, it made my job easier.
Since I was coming back to Calcutta in a couple of days, I never went to the local post office to use telegram.
Back in Kolkata after a couple of days, I filed my story and then enjoyed our beer-swilling sessions at the Calcutta Press Club. Our old friend Chand Joshi of the Hindustan Times from Delhi was also there. He was as much of a `hero’ in Calcutta as in Delhi because he was the son of the first general secretary of the Communist Party of India, Puran Chand Joshi. One of the sharpest journalists in the Indian capital, Chand was a friends’ friend. He had a terrific sense of humour.
So, off we were after a couple of days in Kal (short for Calcutta). The next day, I was Malda putting up in government-run Circuit House. And the same day BJP leader Atal Behari Vajpayee was coming to Malda in the evening to address an election rally.
So as we went towards the venue, I saw the real face of the Left in West Bengal. Their cadres were stopping people here and there – by hook or by crook. Anyhow, we managed to reach the venue. Vajpayee spoke in his usual style. I don’t remember he spoke in English.
Since Vajpayee was tipped to become the next prime minister, everyone was rushing to send off their news copy to their offices. I too rushed to a nearby post office.
It was there that I used the telegram for the first time to send my copy to Calcutta. It was an ancient dusty tic-tic machine that kept making noise all the time. I think they charged quite a bit for sending those 400 or 500 words from me.
That was it. I never heard of the telegram till yesterday. Which triggered my memories of that winter day in Malda in 1998 to write these lines.
I also very well remember that the film Titanic had just been released and it was all over television that night as we sipped beer in the Circuit House to end another grueling day in West Bengal.
Sorry, good ol’ telegram, the Internet, cellphones and SMSes made you a relic of the past. RIP.