Wednesday, 26 June 2013



This is the message that Sagar – let us call our protagonist by this name - received by a telegram sent by his father. He rushed to his place without giving a thought to the wording of the message. He did not stop to think as to when his mother was ever in a lighter mood. She was always serious – serious about whatever she was engaged with at any time. Rarely would she be in a lighter mood!  

What Sagar did, is beside the point. What we are concerned here is the correct meaning of the words of the telegram. To go strictly by rules of English Grammar and Composition, the message should have been worded as: MOTHER SERIOUSLY ILL STOP COME SOON.  But that is the way telegrams are worded – and understood correctly. One thing to be noticed here is that in telegrams inessential words like verbs are omitted to cut cost and since punctuations cannot be transmitted by telegraph, the word ‘STOP’ is used at the end of each sentence.

For long years, I used to think that ‘telegram’ and ‘telegraph’ were one and the same thing although I had noticed that the agency handling telegrams was named ‘Department of Post & Telegraph’ and never ‘Dept. of Post & Telegram’.  This was till I found out that ‘telegraph’ is the means, the process, the equipment by which a message is sent and telegram is the message, the product!

                                                        The Telegraph Equipment

All this quibbling is going to end soon. As this service has become un-remunerative, Bharat Sanchar Nigam, which took over the telegram service from the Dept. of P & T in 1990s, will discontinue it from the 15th July, 2013. Much earlier, the minimum charge for sending a telegram containing 8 words including the address was Rs. 3.50. (For messages exceeding 8 words, there was a charge for each additional word.) Then the minimum charge was increased to Rs. 4.50. In May, 2011, the minimum charge was increased to Rs. 27.50 to cover a part of the cost. (I can’t understand why there is always that 50 paise and the charge is not in round Rupees like Rs. 3 or Rs. 5.).Despite this steep increase in charges, the total expenditure of BSNL on the service in 2011-12 was Rs. 149.37 Crore while the revenue earned was a meager Rs. 13 Crore! Reports say that U K had discontinued this service in 1982 and U S A did so in 2006.

There has been a revolution in telecommunication in India and due to widespread use of e-mails and mobile phones, particularly SMS, telegraph service, like sending of letters has fallen into disuse. In 1985, there were more than 4500 Telegraph Offices in India. At present there are only 75 Telegraph Offices in the whole country. Telegrams, which came into use in India in 1850, i.e., more than 160 years ago, are going to be extinct by the Darwinian principle of ‘Survival of the fittest’. Just as TV has almost killed radio and mobile phones are killing land phones, digital communication is going to push telegrams to history.

To mark the demise of telegram, Amul, in its series of brief and witty ads, has released an ad titled, TELEGRAM FULL STOP. This headline is followed by ‘ut-taar-ly – Butterly Delicious, bringing to mind its slogan - ‘Amul. Utterly Butterly Delicious’.

However, telegrams have their uses. Telegrams and telegraph-receipts are accepted by courts as proof of delivery of communication. The military uses this service most. Requests of employees for sanction or extension of leave are permitted on the basis of telegrams, not phone calls. Since telegrams are sent by wire, such a messages themselves are often called ‘wire’. Banks receive Bills for collection and quite often one of the instructions of the sender would be, ‘Advise Payment by Wire’, meaning, when the Bill is paid by the Drawee, the Bank should send a telegram to the sender.

In 1792, Claude Chappe of France devised what was then called ‘Optical Telegraph’. To overcome the problems of Optical Telegraph, the American painter Samuel Morse developed electric telegraph in 1836. His assistant Alfraid Vail developed what is called the ‘Morse Code’ signaling alphabets, with Morse. On the 24th May, 1844 year, Morse sent the first telegraphic message from Washington DC to Baltimore. It read as: WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT. His ‘taare takka’ was the expression of a kind of sound.  The telegraph was first used in British India in 1850. The first telegraph line was established between Calcutta (now Kolkata) and Diamond Harbour on the Hoogly. Telegraph facility was made available for commercial use in 1854 in India. Then the oceans were wired and a direct link was established between London and Calcutta. East India Company which was ruling India at that time, used the system of telegraph to suppress the ‘ Sepoy Mutiny’ (the First War of Indian Independence) of 1857.

At the receiving end, telegrams get typed, all in capital letters, on strips of white paper which are pasted on a pink form and then are delivered in or without an envelope. Arrival of a telegram invariably increases the heart-beat of the recipient. It may bear good or bad tidings. It may announce the birth of a child, death or success of a near one, a congratulatory message for the addressee or the journey-plan of a visitor.

For bringing into the world our First Born, the wife had gone to her parents’ place. At that time I was working in a small District Head Quarters town in U P. The birth of Daughter I was conveyed to me by a telegram. I have carefully preserved this valuable document among other memorabalia. Here it is.

When Daughter II arrived, use of telephone had become more popular. So this news was conveyed to me over telephone. So I had no way to preserve such nostalgic news carried on pink paper, for posterity. Daughter II and I will always miss it.
The impeding death of telegram brings to mind how Trunk Calls have come to disuse after the telecom revolution ushered in STD- Subscriber Trunk Dialing. Before that, for talking to a person in another place one had to call the Telephone Exchange and book a Trunk Call. Trunk Calls came in 3 forms, Ordinary, Urgent and Lightening.  The operator at the telephone would receive these bookings, note such  requests in serial order and call the bookers one by one in that order. A separate list would be made of requests for Urgent Calls. For Lightening Calls, the telephone operator would give the connection immediately. The charges for Urgent Calls were double that for Ordinary Calls. The charge for a Lightening Call would be much higher. That was the time when for making even a local call, one had to call the Telephone Exchange, tell the operator the telephone number of the person one wanted to talk to  and request the operator to give the connection! And for talking over Trunk Calls, one had to shout with full lung-power to be able to be heard at the other end!!

When I joined my Bank, my seat was next to the Officer who was in charge of maintaining the Position of Sale and Purchase of Foreign Exchange. He used to make  and receive calls to and from various Branches of the Bank all over India for this purpose. The poor fellow would have to shout over Trunk Calls throughout the day and would have a sore throat and coarse voice at the end of each day.

Telegrams have to be brief. Sometimes, this brings unintended fun. In a rural Branch of the Bank, there was only one Officer who was the only Authorised Signatory in the Branch. Whenever he had to go on leave another Officer of the Bank used to come from the Divisional Office to take charge of the Branch. The poor fellow’s wife met with an untimely death; he sent a telegram to the Divisional Office, ‘WIFE EXPIRED STOP SEND SUBSTITUTE’.  

During the war of Independence of Bangladesh in 1970-71, the U S Consul General Archor Blood used to send diplomatic dispatches from Dhaka, giving details of atrocities being committed by the Pakistani military on Bengalis there. Archor Blood’s telegrams detailing the bloody genocides were called ‘Blood Telegrams’, the term aptly carrying a double meaning.

Napoleon loved the body-odour (fragrance if you like) of Jesophine. While returning from one of his successful military campaigns, he sent a telegram to her saying, ‘DON’T WASH I AM COMING’.

Dorothy Parker sent a telegram to her friend who just had a baby, ‘DEAR MARY – WE KNEW YOU HAD IT IN YOU’.   

Mark Twain sent a telegram to a newspaper, ‘RUMOURS OF MY DEATH ARE VASTLY EXAGGERATED’. The author of this terse telegram received a telegram from his publisher, ‘NEED 2-PAGE SHORT STORY TWO DAYS’. Promptly he telegraphed back, ’NO CAN DO 2 PAGES TWO DAYS STOP CAN DO 30 PAGES 2 DAYS STOP NEED 30 DAYS TO DO 2 PAGES’.


Oscar Wilde once wanted to know how his new book was selling. He sent to his publisher a message “?”. His publisher matched the brevity with brevity and wit with wit by replying “!”.  

2. "Goodbye, telegram. And goodbye letters in envelopes, goodbye post office, goodbye beautiful days, goodbye childhood , goodbye happiness." - Taslima Nasreen, Bangladeshi writer living in India, on the end of telegraph service.

July 15, 2013

On July 14,2013, the last day in the life of telegrams in India, a Member of Parliament from Odisha sent a telegram to the Prime Minister of India saying, "THIS IS THE LAST TELEGRAM".

9 P M of that day was the time for withdrawing telegraph service. There was a big rush at most of the Telegraph Offices in India that day as people wished to say 'Goodbye' by sending a last telegram:(((((

Many of the visitors were first-timers who wanted to send souvenir messages to friends and family. A techie at Bangalore sent a telegram to his wife saying "I LOVE YOU STOP". He said that his wife always complained that he had never proposed to her; he sent the telegram to STOP her complaint. The revenue earned by BSNL on the last day was a whooping Rs. 69 Lakh! 


  1. I had always wanted to use this service at least once in my lifetime. Unfortunately, it seems too late to do it now :)

    1. The service will be discontinued by BSNL only on the 15th July. I do not know whether BSNL receives and delivers international telegrams. You can inquire and try.

      By the way, what happened to your blog-posts?

  2. This one is another casualty of advancement of telecommunication. Had the telegram been a living being, we would have said that its progeny (cellular communication) has cannibalised it. But thankfully, it is just an equipment :)

  3. You might have read the Odia short story 'Magunira Shagada' (Maguni's Bullock Cart) by the legendary Godabarish Mohapatra where he narrates the plight of the villager Maguni who was earning his living by transporting people and goods in his bullock cart. Then a better road was laid and a bus started plying. He lost his means of living and was forced to beg for a living.