Sunday, July 7, 2013

The last telegram!

On 13th June, I read the clever headline, “Telegram serious, start immediately”, ironically enough on the web edition of the Calcutta daily called “The Telegraph”.

Till that day, the words “taar” and “telegram” had never entered my world except for in the old anecdotes told by my grandparents. This was the medium in which they had received some of the best and worst news of their life. Similarly, in so many old novels, the telegram bearer always draws out a very wide range of emotions. It struck me that me and my friends were going to be a generation which shall miss out on those feelings and this tremendous medium of communication that had ushered in the information revolution of its time.

And so my mind was made up, I shall send a telegram before the service breathed its last in India.

Where do I begin?

Being an amateur philatelist, I knew of the telegram service’s existence but having twitter, whatsapp, facebook messenger and much more on my android phone, I never had to use the service ever before. Since in the stories I had heard that the postmen delivered these telegrams I turned up at the post office looking to send a telegraph, only to be told (very curtly) that the post I was at didn’t handle telegrams since the Central Telegraph Office was in the vicinity.

The Central Telegraph Office is a building that I had walked past every single day in that week, but ignored. It housed BSNL offices and it was there I could send a telegram from. This is because in the year 1994, BSNL took over the telegram system from the post but in some form of weird symbiosis, apparently still depends on them for the last step of delivery as far as I can tell.

As I entered the office, I had to look around and ask a couple of times, for telegram services are now manned by a single counter while all the other counters are dedicated to other services. Why BSNL needs counters and posters advertising its mobile services in MUMBAI is kind of beyond me but I didn’t enquire much and headed for the telegram counter. There I first faced these two signs -


The image on the left gives standard telegram phrase codes. These phrase charts are available with all the offices and using them, a long standard phrase can be sent for minimum cost of telegram. The other image showed that my little fun telegram endeavour would have been much cheaper before April 2012 when the rates were increased from Rs. 1.50 to Rs. 28 as the minimum cost of a telegram.

However, regardless of the cost I had to send one before the service died out and I decided not to use a standard phrase so that I write a message of my own.

The Message

IMG_20130614_104450In the enthusiasm of finding out how to send a telegram, I had not had much time to decide what to send and to who and these were the questions that I faced as I took the form the person at the counter. The form was printed on paper so thin and old that it could very well have been from the 1800s. Since it was no festive occasion and since I had neither good nor bad news to spread, I decided to send a congratulatory message to my friend Mr. GP* who had just been offered an internship at a reputed company.
* -See this older post to read about how we sampled the food at the Good Luck Cafe, the only Mumbai eatery which serves Emu meat.

Why telegram is the forefather of telephone!

Twitter has kept the awkward phrasing spirit of telegram alive today by virtue of its character limit. In the older telegram technology the limit is of words since each word after the first few costs extra. PM Nehru’s famous diplomatic telegram to PM Atlee in 1947 about Kashmir, is believed to be long by telegram standards and even that consists only of 230 words. (You can see the transcript here)

I believed that for an innocent first timer I had done well. I thought I had written a 22 word telegram (or 24 words with my name) which would cost me the minimum charge of Rs. 28 since that was the cost for the first 30 words.

That unfortunately familiar feeling of reading the telephone bill and finding that you have to pay for absurd Value-Added-Services that you don’t need or you never knew were chargeable in the first place, it hit me when the person at the counter asked me to fork out Rs. 35 though I was confident of having stuck to 30 words. Apparently I had to pay for the words in the address though nobody had bothered to tell that.


It was then that I could accept that telegram is indeed the predecessor and ancestor of the telephone. There is absolutely nothing defines telephone service providers as much as hidden and unexpected charges do.

The Delivery

Shockingly enough, there was no same day delivery inspite of the fact that I was sending a telegram within the city with the destination no more than 20-30 km away. When it finally arrived 3 days later, Mr. GP had a good laugh and sent me this photograph below which shows that it arrived at the Andheri Telegraph office within 3 hours but they somehow took 3 days to deliver it. I have heard from others that apparently more serious messages especially carrying the news of any death are delivered faster.


Interestingly enough, perhaps in order to ensure that the traditional mystery and enigma surrounding the technology is not lost, the message came with lines of random text at the bottom below the words.

Though the delivery delay was slightly miffing, I enjoyed the experience of sending a telegram before the service closed down for good.

The last telegram in India will be sent on 14th July and the service has already been long dead in most of the countries around the world. So, if you want to take benefit of this old time tech to send something to your friend, you just have one week left!

Monday, July 1, 2013

Transparency lesson from the past!

Interning at an office in South Bombay has meant that I found time to and had to go to several colonial buildings including the Bombay High Court, the Esplanade Centre of Magistrates’ Courts, the Central Telegraph Office and the Victoria Terminus (now – CST).

I noticed a common feature in these beautiful public buildings built in the late 1800s or early 1900s. To ensure transparency, these buildings carry a great many details on their prominently displayed plaques. These plaques have details of not only when was the building sanctioned and who built it but also about the chief designers, engineers and most importantly the difference between the estimated and final costs of the project.

Take a look at this plaque at the Central Telegraph Office*.


* – The image says General Post Office because it was built as the GPO but later on  when the present GPO building was built it was made the Central Telegraph Office.

The very detailed plaque above shows that the massive building was completed in just about three years from 1869 to 1872 and that the actual cost of ₨. 5,94,200 was actually about five thousand rupees lesser than the sanctioned cost of ₨. 5,99,992.

This plaque is infact a tool of accountability and transparency. The name of the architect along with the names of those who were incharge of the construction is out there literally etched in stone for everyone to see. 

Another example of such a plaque is the image below (taken from which I believe is of the building presently housing the Maharashtra Archives.


Let’s bring back this practice…

This practice of elaborate plaques has been almost completely abandoned today. I don’t remember seeing any post-independence building or structure of which so many details including the name of the architect and the cost of construction is available on the structure itself. While plaques still exist they tend to only highlight the names of the so called VIPs who inaugurated it.

With several infrastructure projects and public buildings in Bombay (and other parts of India as well) being way behind schedule and extremely over budget, this could be an effective way to put pressure on contractors to finish on time an within budget because if the don’t, their shortcomings would be on display for the world to see, for ages to come. It is also a transparency mechanism since when the people see how many taxpayers’ rupees were spent on a particular building or project they would be able to gauge for themselves if it was money well spent.

In our hurry to move forward and progress, it is not really wise to leave behind the wisdom of the past!

Do comment and let me know if you have ever seen in Bombay,a modern building plaque that states anything apart from the name of the VIP or VVIP who inaugurated it!