In the heart of Delhi, opposite the Imperial Hotel, stands eastern court — courthouse from the Raj era —which houses the official building of the department of telecommunication or DoT. It took over the telegram services from the post and telegraph department in 1986.
At the DoT office, on asking a duo about the telegram section, they echo incredulously: “The what?” “Telegram.” “Uh, it should be that way,” they say, pointing to a nondescript doorway. On the other side, a middle-aged clerk hands over a telegram form on enquiry. He insists that the complete address be written for the telegram to reach its destination. “There’s a Rohini in West Bengal, one in Delhi, so the state and pincode must be mentioned clearly,” he looks over his spectacles, turning to a young boy. “Who will understand this handwriting? Take another form and write it clearly. People have forgotten how to write legibly now,” he says to a sympathetic colleague busy on her mobile. The boy, who’s from a local television channel, is sending “some important news” to a colleague in Kerala.
So are telegrams still in use? I ask the clerk. “They have drastically reduced over the years. It’s the business houses that do bulk mailing through telegrams or the government and courts that send legal notices. Telegrams are considered evidence unlike new media like SMS and email,” he says.
The department, which moved to the telecom division 25 years ago, now receives on average 10-14 telegrams a day and 100s if it’s a business bulk mail. The minimum charges are R28, each word costs R1. As the clerk counts the words in mine, clips of old Amitabh Bachchan movies, Pankaj Udhas’s soulful classic on receiving a chitti, flash in my head. “Since it’s a local address, it will take a day to reach,” he says, handing back a computerised counterfoil and breaking my reverie.
Opposite the Old Delhi railway station, stands the pristine Kashmere Gate GPO, one of the oldest post offices in the country. It’s fairly busy in the middle of a hot June afternoon. Wordlessly a preoccupied employee points me to the telegram office. It’s a separate building next to the GPO. What was perhaps a grand old building in the earlier days with winding staircases and high ceilings is only half occupied now. A trio of old men is sitting on a bench under the grimy staircase. There’s obviously not much to do.
Om Prakash, a 60-plus group C employee, recalls the time when there were over 400 employees in the building. “We’ve whittled down to barely 20 now. The rates of a telegram were also suddenly hiked. From R3.50 to R27.50 in the last two decades, no one wants to send a telegram now.” Prakash who worked as a postman in earlier years is proud of his 119 taar deliveries in eight hours. “Mobile and email made things easy. Telegram is only used for legal purposes now,” he says. And surprisingly Mumbai emerges as the destination with maximum telegram correspondence according to the employees here. None of them wish to be quoted or photographed. “Please go to the officials, we can’t talk to you otherwise,” says the in-charge, shooing me away.
As I make my way out, a young BSNL employee matches my stride to ask me if this was about a survey. On being told it’s a newspaper story he says, “Arre why are you bothering about the telegram? Write about people like A Raja.”
The next day in office I check if the telegram had made it to its destination. It hadn’t.
Army’s official communication channel
MOTHER SERIOUS COME HOME.
Recall the Bollywood oldies where the hero, pursuing studies or a job elsewhere, would rush back home after receiving a telegram only to find his mother busy arranging his marriage to the village girl next door?
The likes of riflemen Lalzirliana and Daan Singh have occasionally relished this reel motherly trick at Rai Auditorium in the Assam Rifles (AR) headquarters 15 km south of Meghalaya capital Shillong. But they know telegrams are not a source of amusement in the real world.
Since 1917, telegrams have been de rigueur for official communication among the AR units, particularly when officers and jawans have to be told to cut short their leave for emergency counter-insurgency operations. Riflemen are SMS-ed these days, but the good old telegram is still a more trusted deliverer.
“Nothing has changed, nothing will on the telegram front,” says Uttam Chand, who as establishment offer is in charge of postal communication in the AR HQ. “Because telegrams help us keep official records of messages unlike modern messaging methods that jawans might deny having received at all.”
No one knows it better than Lalzirliana, from a village near Lunglei in southern Mizoram, and Daan Singh, from a hamlet close to Karnprayag in Uttarakhand. Both had been recalled via telegram they received along with an SMS — REJOIN IMMEDIATELY.
The army, CRPF and BSF too rely on telegrams for all things official. “Apart from messages to individuals and units, we also use telegrams for congratulating officers and jawans for awards,” says Shillong-based BSF spokesperson Ravi Gandhi.
“Telegrams will survive as long as we have the armed forces operating in geographically difficult areas such as the Northeast,” says a senior officer at Guwahati's Meghdoot Bhavan, headquarters of the Assam Postal Circle.