On Sunday at 21:00 hrs precisely, somewhere in India, the last ever telegram was tapped out…the service that touched the lives of many for over 163 years…
As we watched the news with my parents, I found myself taken back to the 1970s, whilst they pondered over their experiences of the telegram service. Growing up in India, my Mum always felt a sense of discomfort as that knock on the door usually brought bad news.
She went on to explain that back then, messages were limited to ten words. They fell within ‘greeting’, ‘ordinary message’ and ‘express message’ categories, and cost 3.50 rupees (£0.04). In order to inform someone of the demise of a family member, there was a double-X telegram which cost the same as an ordinary telegram but was given priority even over express telegrams.
Once one of most important means of communication – the harbinger for both good and bad news – which first arrived in India in the 1850s, and saw decades of postmen on bicycles delivering telegrams with notifications of births and deaths and other momentous events.
The service has now been made redundant by the rise of faster, cheaper and smarter communications solutions. These days, a telegram of up to 50 words would cost 27 rupees (£0.30) and could take up to two days to be delivered, compared with a text message which can be sent and received instantaneously.
As a result of such technological advances, over the past decade, several countries have slowly edged out telegram services. In Britain, telegrams are operated by a private company, but are marketed as ‘retro’ greeting cards or invitations. Centenarians still receive a telegram from the Queen on their birthday. In the US, the main service provided by Western Union was shut down in 2006. Services of varying scales are still provided in Russia, Germany and Canada among other countries.
The time has come for India to say goodbye too. Sunday 14th July – a historic moment which saw telegram nostalgia absorbing the nation – as post offices all over India saw a last minute rush to send souvenir telegrams to remember the old fashioned way of communication. Certainly an emotional moment for my parents who grew up with the telegram service and were witnesses to its heyday. The service had an impact not only on government, trade and industry but, more importantly, on the lives of ordinary people.
The question is will the last few reminders of this era be archived and preserved in the future? Can we hope to see a museum dedicated to a department that has served the nation so well these past 163 years? There cannot be a more appropriate tribute to all those ‘brass beaters’, past and present, than to have a dedicated memory of Indian telegrams.