As a child, I would often wonder what the clerk in the telegraph office did with that small machine run with a ticking finger. He sat with one of his legs crossed, holding a beedi in one hand and tick-tapping a gadget with a black handle on a table. The tick-tick clicks did not make any sense. There wasn't any rhythm to it either. He seemed to convey something though, and also waited for the response. Later, I learnt that it was the Morse code machine that
helped send and receive telegrams, the fastest mode of communication known then.
It's now curtains for the 162-year-old service in India, thanks to an era swanked by emails, SMSes, beeps and blares. The quite burial sounds like one's surrender to the times, not only of having come of age but of having been surpassed by abler instruments.
Popularly known in India as 'Taar,' a telegram's arrival was more dreaded than celebrated, since the contents remained mysterious till they were made known to 'the one wired'.
Generally, a 'Taar' meant trouble or some bad news, sounding emergency, exigency and seeking or compelling presence of someone at some place. "Mother serious come soon", "Father expired", "Leave cancelled", "War breaks out, report at once" are some of the examples of unpleasant and bad news, while "Son born", "Congratulations on your selection" too existed but not as many.
Movies and dramas had innumerable instances to quote when the scenario dramatically changed on the receipt of a telegram. Mostly, the rural folk did not understand the language being illiterate. It remained a matter of anxiety till someone was found who could read it out.
Mostly, the postman doubled up as the reader. I remember a scene in a movie 'Musafir' when Kishore Kumar attempts suicide since he couldn't find a job. When he had consumed poison, a telegram reached his home. It announced his selection for a job. Everyone around cried louder. Then a yawning Kishore woke up to find himself alive with the exciting information contained in the telegram. The poison was adulterated and did not have the desired effect.
Generally, serving soldiers were called to report to their units on receiving telegrams, announcing a breakout of war.
The main casualty with sending a telegram used to be how precise and economical one could be since being verbose could cost one dearly. Hence, clinical precision and diction auditing was required for selection of words. People of those times knew their grammar well and did not compromise compressing words without vowels as is the case today 'vid d kmptr jnrshn in d mdrn dz cybr wrld!' Generally, the definite and indefinite articles, adverbs and helping verbs were sacrificed while writing a telegraphic message. Yes, sometimes it led to confusion and the content was misunderstood.
But if any office remained open 24x7 in the good old days, it was the telegraph office. I read somewhere about a telegram intended to get leave extended when someone's father died and he needed to go to Haridwar to feed Brahmans as per Hindu rituals. It went: "Father dead. Go Ganga. Eat Brahmans. Extend leave five days!"