The last day of the telegraph service witnessed a range of reactions and emotions at the telegraph offices in Chennai
A few more hours were left for it to live. 163 years is indeed more than a lifetime in today’s age when technology is changing at lightning speed. It was July 15 and it had been announced in the papers that the telegram would never see another day. For those who had grown on up on both the greetings and bad news delivered by the telegraph service, it was a moment of nostalgia to return to the precincts of the telegraph office. But more importantly, for those who had never sent or received one in their life, this was the last chance to send one to their friends, relatives or as it was to be seen in many cases, to themselves.
I had never seen, forget having sent, a telegram in my life. The only fond recollection of a telegram I had was from an RK Narayan short story called The Missing Mail, where a postman by the name Tanappa decides not to deliver a telegram conveying the news of death at a house, where a wedding was in progress. I wanted to send a telegram before the telegram service packed its bags, leaving behind just memories of its story.
On Sunday evening we reached the General Post Office in Rajaji Salai to find it closed. A few college students had gathered there to send the first and last telegram of their life, only to be disappointed to see the gate of the post office locked. We moved further to the post office on Mount Raod, to find the telegraph office closed there as well. With a few other enthusiasts, we rushed to the BSNL office at Ethiraj Salai, which was the receiving the last of telegrams in the city.
A person there was writing a telegram to his son, who was standing next to him. He was sending the telegram after almost 28 years and on Sunday, the last telegram of his life read, “TO MY SON IN MEMORY OF THE TELEGRAPH SERVICE.” Sending it to his teenaged son was a way of letting him know what the telegraph was all about and also to relive, for the last time, pastiches of his childhood.
Then there was a marketing professional, who had come to send a telegram purely to be a part of history. But then there were other regular users of the telegraph service like a lawyer at the Madras High Court, who felt that telegrams, with their expansive reach to the remotest of rural areas, should not have been allowed to die. For most kids accompanying their parents, this was no less than a visit to a museum, for the telegram was soon to be a matter of past.
But then, the people who really felt the sense of loss were the officials at the telegraph office, who had been a part of the lives of so many people, delivering the news of a relative who deceased, of a success at a job interview, of the arrival of a son for the Diwali holidays and countless other highs and lows of their lives. The fact that the telegraph service was being discontinued due to loss of revenue seemed to be a lame argument to them, for even the railways ran on losses. On the last day, more than 1000 telegrams had been sent in Chennai alone. “But the long queue you see here today is similar to that of people coming to pay their last respects at the home of someone who is no more. The air is not celebratory to me; sorrow hangs in the air,” he said.
The telegraph service, after having delivered news of death for so many years, has finally breathed its last.
(This story had been published in The Times of India)