Pain and cable

Arrival of a telegram was more often than not met with a sense of trepidation.

Dismiss me as a sentimental old fool, but I found the news that the telegram service would soon be shut down, a trifle disheartening and painful. Telegrams may seem redundant in the brave new world of instant communications. But much of India lives in its villages which, due to poor connectivity, continue to rely on the good old postal system where the delivery man even reads out the messages to unlettered rural folk, in the manner of Thanappa in R K Narayan’s short story ‘The Missing Mail’.

Many of us who have grown up in the telegram era before it was superseded by instant modes of communication cherish mixed memories - good, not-so-good and sometimes funny. It was one of those dark days of blackouts and curfew of the Indo-Pak war of 1971, when we had to perforce turn in early.  In the dead of night, we were awakened by the sound of our dog’s loud and incessant barking and the banging of our gate. We children peered from the windows upstairs while our parents were trying to decipher what the man at the gate was saying in Hindi.

“Taar, taar” he said.  Only when he shouted ‘Telegram!’ did Dad turn on the lights and step out nervously to receive the cable. Those days, when telephones were not so common, it was telegrams that generally brought grim news. In this case it was about the demise of a maternal uncle that made mother teary-eyed. After some consoling and confabulations, we went back to sleep.

Indeed, the arrival of a telegram was more often than not met with a sense of trepidation because there was an element of urgency and seriousness associated with it – death, illness or in the case of my army man father, to report immediately.

But telegrams were also harbingers of good tidings. Often they announced the birth of a baby, an engagement or marriage, a job or a promotion or news of significance. When my tenth board exam results were announced I was at a wedding in Mangalore. My uncle brought the telegram sent by my dad which read: "Congratulations! Passed in first class!"

But that was followed by another disappointing one a few days later which read:  "Please send Stanley back immediately." This was my father’s response to an uncle’s letter seeking permission for me to join them on a holiday to Goa.

One Sunday morning a taxi stopped at our gate and out trooped an uncle with his family of five. Despite surprise at their unannounced arrival, they were warmly welcomed and served a hearty breakfast. Just then we were alerted by the ring of a cycle bell followed by a voice shouting “Telegraaam”! All of us ran out to receive it. "Arriving with fly on Sunday", it read.  Needless to say the message had reached after the sender and family had arrived, defeating its purpose and causing some discomfiture and hilarity.

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