You’ve got two weeks left to send a telegram. After that, like radiograms, chill-proof vests and kullar ki chai, they’ll become part of history, Technology has made them redundant. So grab the opportunity before it’s too late!
I’m not sure when I last received a telegram. Perhaps it was
10 years ago. But the twin emotions of excitement and dread it used to provoke are still hauntingly fresh.
Perhaps this is why, unless you are absolutely on your own, a telegram was never read alone. The family, in fact whoever was there, gathered around as you anxiously tore it open. They peered over your shoulder, struggling to read its message as soon as you did.
Of course, it was always headline news. I found out about my School Certificate results, my admission to Cambridge and my grandmother’s death by telegram. On each occasion my throat turned dry, my hands shook and a prayer rose spontaneously to my lips.
There was something bold, stark but oddly impressive about the sparse typed words, often wrongly spelt, staring back at you as you blinked and absorbed their cold ungrammatical meaning. Even if it was good news the layout never seemed friendly, perhaps because it was always frighteningly urgent.
An Indian innovation was the phonogram. This version was initiated over the telephone and communicated verbally at the other end, though the paper trail always followed. A three digit number, found in the crowded initial pages of the directory, was the convenient starting point.
Telegrams weren’t always bad news or even exciting good news. Birthday greetings, arrival times of trains, confirmation of departures and, on occasion, the dispatch of your luggage was often communicated by telegram.
The most famous —certainly the most succinct — was Lord Napier’s announcing the conquest of Sind. He’d achieved this feat despite strict orders not to. So he coupled the news with admission of his wrongdoing in the single word ‘Peccavi’, which is Latin for I have sinned. He was, of course, swiftly forgiven!
Perhaps the funniest was sent by my old school chum Patrick Filmer-Sankey to his mother, the actress Adrienne Corri, as an April Fool’s prank whilst he was still at Stowe. “Damn!” it began, “I’ve forgotten what I wanted to say.”
In stories set in grand British country houses telegrams are usually delivered either at breakfast or fearfully late at night. The butler arrives carrying the dreaded missive on a silver tray, his face suitably sombre. There’s always a letter opener by its side in case anxiety makes your hands shake.
In India, the postman would wait to see if it was good or bad news. If bad he’d quietly melt away. But if good he’d expect a tip before he disappeared. Of course, he would be back at Diwali hoping for an insurance gift for the next year.
Today emails, smses, tweets and mobile phones have replaced the telegram. No doubt they’re faster and more convenient but they lack the sense of crisis or drama. They’re part of our quotidian routine. A telegram was special.
Which is why, if you’ve never sent one, dash off and do so now. Or if you’ve never received one, ask a friend to fulfil this special wish.
Finally, a little secret which explains my fascination. When I was at school I was what they call a gasbag. ‘Telegram, telephone, tell Thapar’ they’d say. The telegram is out. The phone’s gone mobile. I guess I’m all that’s left!
Views expressed by the author are personal
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