THE TELEGRAPH

End of a tradition

Print edition : August 09, 2013

A jawan sends a telegram in Kolkata on the last day of the service, June 14. Photo: Ashok Bhaumik /PTI

In Kolkata, employees of BSNL's telegraph division protest the closure of the service. Photo: DIBYANGSHU SARKAR/AFP

AFTER a relationship spanning over one and a half centuries, on July 14, Kolkata bid an emotional adieu to a mode of communication it had long outgrown—the telegram. Hundreds of people thronged to the Central Telegraph Office in Kolkata on that day, a Sunday, to send their last telegram. In many cases it was also the first time they were sending one.

Sabyasachi Roy came from Hindustan Motors, outside Kolkata, just to keep a memento. “I have neither received nor sent a telegram to anyone in my whole life, but I remember my father doing it a lot. I am actually sending a telegram to myself using a different name,” he told Frontline.

He is not one of those who feel that the service ought to have been kept alive for sentimental reasons. “One must move with the times. In an age of email and SMS, it is surprising that it was still around for so long,” he said.

Subir Ray from Dhakuria is of the same opinion. “It is not a loss, but a step to progress,” he said. Like many others, he too never sent a telegram in his life, but was there because he would never get the chance to do so again. “Another reason that I have come is because I have fond memories associated with telegrams. When I was growing up in the 1960s my grandparents used to send me a telegram on my birthday,” he said.

There were also those for whom the feeling of nostalgic sadness was tinged with a little resentment. “Was it really necessary to shut it down? Does everyone in this poor country have access to the Internet or own a mobile phone? It is an old tradition with so much of the country’s history attached to it; what was wrong in having it around?” said Bibek Debnath from Howrah.

Kolkata’s sentimental attachment to the past is well known. It is not that there is resistance to change, but that the change should take place without losing the connection with the past. The city’s association with the telegraph goes back 163 years when work commenced to lay the first telegraph line in the country, between the Alipore Telecom Factory in Calcutta and the Diamond Harbour Post Office (a distance of around 45 km) in November 1850.

The first test telegram message was sent from the Telecom Factory in March 1851. In December that year the service was opened for the public and the first message was sent from the city to the Diamond Harbour Post Office. By 1854 telegraph lines had been laid across the country mainly in Delhi, Bombay and Madras.

According to Santosh Ghosh, author of the book ‘The Sepoy Mutiny from Telegram Messages’, the story of the telegraph service in India began with Sir William Brook O’Shaughnessy, an eminent physician who was also carrying out experiments with the telegraph as early as 1839, when he had successfully laid a seven-mile-long telegraph line from the Botanical Gardens in Howrah.

However, his efforts went largely unnoticed until 1848 when he managed to convince Governor General Lord Dalhousie about the necessity of the telegraph system in a country like India. “He convinced Lord Dalhousie that the telegraph would be speedier than the rail. In fact, it is the telegraph system that came to the rescue of the Empire during the Sepoy Mutiny (of 1857),” Ghosh told Frontline.

Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay

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