The Annual Technical Inspection of the Unit was due, and we had to host a visiting General for dinner at the Officers’ Mess. Imagine my horror when the Mess Secretary informed me that the only mess cook we had, had proceeded on leave.
“He received a telegram, sir – mother serious!” Major Vikas intoned lugubriously.
“All our mothers are serious, Vikas” I spluttered in disbelief “you think mine is joking??”
In the age of the sms, the BBM, the iMessage and Viber, how many of us remember that vile, obnoxious and utterly despicable messaging system that went by the name of `TELEGRAM’ or, as it was colloquially called, the `TAAR’? Delivered by diminutive postmen in khaki, generally in the dead of the night – oh, what manner of horrors that midnight knock held! And those postmen were such past masters, with expressions that ranged from mournful hangdog to Cheshire cat grin, depending upon whether the news he was carrying was that of a death or a birth in the family! For him, it was the baksheesh that counted!
Personally, my animosity towards the telegram was well founded. My daughter was born in Bhubaneswar while I happened to be in Poona. Those were pre STD days, and we didn’t even have a land-line connection. Also, my father in law, Lord rest his soul, was a great one for sending telegrams. Even in his letters, he’d often stress on the urgency/gravity of what he was saying by adding an acerbic `Khat ko taar samjho!’.
So naturally he sent me a telegram. Now the ability to properly draft a telegram is directly proportional to two factors - the amount of money in your pocket, and the number of words in your vocabulary. Being severely challenged on both counts, the old man wrote `GIRL BORN SERIOUS OPERATION COME SOON’. I rushed as fast as I could, or as fast as one could rush from Poona to Bhubaneswar in those halcyon days of the Indian Railways, when such an enterprise entailed train changes and longish halts at Secunderabad, Vijaywada and Waltair. I reached two days later. The `serious operation’ turned out to be no more than a normal C-section, and both mother and daughter were in the pink.
When my son was born a few years later in Mhow, I had to trudge all the way from the MH to the single ramshackle post office that served as the nerve centre of that sleepy station. The sole employee there also doubled as Post Master, stamp dispenser, telegraphist, chowkidar and pretty much everything. His only link to the outside world was a single telegraph line to Indore. He first sat at the counter, accepted my telegram, handed me back my change, then waddled over to an ancient key console that was a true museum piece, and laboriously keyed the message to his counterpart in Indore. Click-click, click-click, and hey presto – the birth of Siddharth Puri was announced to the world at large! And even though his birth too was via a C-section, no alarm bells were generated!
In the Army, a telegram was considered a pre-requisite, almost a sin qua non, for any jawan seeking leave. It was quite common to find telegrams (WIFE/MOTHER SERIOUS COME SOON) stapled on to their leave applications. As Commanding Officer, I made it a point to junk all such applications, while rewarding the other `non telegram’ ones. Would you guess it - within a month of my taking over, telegrams to my unit mysteriously stopped altogether!
The fauji equivalent of the telegram used to be the SIGNAL, which we Signallers had to process and clear. Those of us who performed DSO (Duty Signal Officer) duties in shifts as subalterns will recall just how intricate it was to correctly route a signal from, say Bengdubi in the North East to Pattan in J&K!
An apocryphal story on Army Signals bears repeating. A GOC was to visit a remote location. A signal was sent from his Headquarters –
VISIT GOC (.) WASHER WOMAN AND OTHER FACILITIES TO BE ARRANGED (.)
Now the operator at the sending end, probably towards the end of a long shift, omitted one vital word, and the signal went as
VISIT GOC (.) WOMAN AND OTHER FACILITIES TO BE ARRANGED (.)
The CO Signals was naturally furious, and ordered the DSO on duty to immediately send an amendment. The young guy, fresh from his Young Officers’ Course, sent this gem
REFER EARLIER SIGNAL (.) REQUEST INSERT WASHER BETWEEN GOC AND WOMAN (.)
Do they still have telegrams, I wonder? Is the Indian Postal Service still in business? What became of that `All-in-One’ superhero at Mhow PO?
Maybe it wasn’t all that bad, the lack of communication had plenty of silver linings.
Fast forward to the present.
A guy carelessly leaves his cell phone lying around. Of course guys, being guys, are totally sloppy and/or overly sentimental, and never delete those lovey-dovey messages, they like to read them again and again. And of course wives, being wives, will make a grab for the phone at the first opportunity, and feverishly browse through the Message Inbox.
End of story? You’re kidding, right?? Oh, for the days of yore….