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RIP Telegram: When journalism couldn't do without the wire service

Sending a telegram could be possible only tomorrow. A day after that none would be accepted and consequently, none would be delivered. Chances are a majority of readers – at least those in their 30s in a demographically young country - who read in today’s newspapers that the Indian Posts and Telegraph was ending the mode’s 160 years of service by a simple circular would not even realise what it meant for journalism.

Short, terse messages, except those written by the government, raced along the wires to be delivered normally in about 3-4 hours and banks transferred money by a set of codes conveyed by using the system. Often messages of birth and death were announced to the near and dear ones. My grandmother opened them only in front of the deities worshipped in the pooja room. Ours were first read in the newsrooms.

I haven’t sent a personal ‘wire’ in decades now but I have sent many earlier, perhaps thousands, and for some years on the average of one a day, sometimes a few per day. They were the only means by which my news dispatches could reach my office in Chennai. I had worked for The Hindu then. Phoning in a copy was expensive.

The dispatches sent were of a special variety where not the sender but the receiver, which naturally was the newspaper, paid up at the end of a month or quarter, the sum of charges of all telegrams sent. They were mostly delivered in the normal course in about three hours by rule, if marked BGQ, meaning ‘ordinary’. If it was ‘express’, the tag was BGXQ. They had to be marked at the top of the page. They respectively cost two and four paise per word.

Reuters

Reuters

Normally, we were informally told by the office to use the ‘ordinary’ because almost invariably they were quickly delivered, either out of respect for journalism or the P&T thought it should, as an obligation to keep the media wheels oiled, did not tarry long. There were some meant to be delivered near instant and called ‘Flash’ and could not be long, if I remember right, of some 50-60 words. It worked well for us.

We were not working in the days of expensive telegrams. Two and four paise a word was cheap and messages did not have to be compressed to save on words like in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop. If the ship was sailing to Bombay, say, then it sufficed to write ‘ship bombaywards’ and intelligent desk hands deciphered it well. For us, it had to be complete and dispatches of even 700-800 words were not uncommon. Some were longer but only occasionally.

However, they had to be typed. The telegraph officers preferred it in lowercase for it was easier to read than in only caps. Each of the punctuation used had to be spelt out, and after every 50 words, the number mentioned in parenthesis and after the 199th it was ‘mtf’, for ‘more to follow’. Strangely, the 201st word was on the same page, implying that one press telegram had ended and another of another 200 was underway, to be delivered together.

They were written thus: mahesh vijapurkar ex thane dateline thane june thirteen colon this city comma, with a small population of only one point eight million comma and next to Mumbai comma does not get the same level of services as the residents of the neighbouring city are given stop it is not rpt not because this city has no civic body but suffers due to the apathy of the elected representatives and the officials stop. para ask any thane resident and he will explain his woes stop.

There often was a worry about what word to use, as it would be, if I were to send a dispatch from Delhi about the decision to stop the telegraph services from June 15. Wouldn’t the ‘stop’ here be mistaken for a full stop? That made us pause a while but we managed to convey the point. If ‘no’ had to be used, whether as a noun, adjective or adverb, it had to be repeated thus: ‘no rpt no” for if it were to be missed when reading and typesetting, the meaning changed entirely.

There apparently was some minimum charge for each telegram apart from the two paise/four paise rate per word about which I never enquired. All that had to be done was show the Telegraph Press Bearing Card, whose details was noted on the back of the message by the counter clerk for delayed billing. Not once did I hear a complaint of mutilated or misspelt words. If they were, it was normally the correspondent’s erring ways.

Rarely did a press telegram arrive at the publishing office after the deadline. That is because we correspondents worked backwards from the deadline. If the deadline was 9 pm at the publication centre, we raced with the text by about 6.30 pm which meant shortened deadlines for field work. If not nimble, we missed the story in the next morning’s editions.

The handed over copy were not counted by the staff because we already had, and merely started sending them. They either trusted us or knew the words were anyhow counted by the correspondent.

Only once from a place called Utnoor in utterly backward Adilabad district of Andhra Pradesh did my dispatch go by Morse code where dots and dashes were made sense of by the telegraphist at the destination to write it out in long hand form. It must have been a torture to send and receive some 600 words but the staff at the telegraph offices never grumbled. To them, the idea of seeing news they may read tomorrow was charming enough.

The itinerant correspondents were even treated to a cup of tea and even given some tip off for other stories to do. Since such small places like Utnoor did not have press rooms – a feature in bigger stations, outfitted by the department – some clerk was asked to shift for the correspondent to use the machine. Those days, one travelled by ordinary state transport buses – the charm and comfort of a taxi was denied – and lugging a portable was a nuisance. The telegraph offices were dependable.

Like I said before, I have not sent a press telegram in a long time but the thought of the service, surely past the use-by date, makes me nostalgic. It was as if the entire system that the P&T set up was a part of journalism without which, the world would not hear of the tree falling and making a noise somewhere. I am nostalgic, yes. Memories of several telegraph offices used to send out stories flood my mind.

Telegram: RIP. Every journalist who used this mode would say it too for he interacted closely with the telegraph office. And knew its value.

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