I can only remember receiving one telegram in my life. I was about eight or nine. It was from an uncle and it was a message sent just for fun saying funny but nice things about me. I don’t really remember the contents now, except for the use of the word Stop to divide phrases. I remember it caused much hilarity and drama in my household arising from the fact that something frivolous had been worded and transmitted in a grandiose manner.
Telegrams were expensive and so sent only when it was important. Important is a subjective thing but clearly at any point in time, there seems to be relative unanimity on some things being important i.e, those things that relate to major life decisions and moments and the Telegraph Office listed 44 of these as form messages you could choose from if you didn’t wish to compose your own. These included messages of birth, death, illness, accident - but also greetings for holidays and festivals like Diwali and Independence Day.
While the form messages may have been composed partly for people who weren’t literate, surely garrulous people like us needed someone to do it, boil it down to the 19th century version of twitter. To go through that list today would surely show us how our emotional lives have changed and not. Some things will stay steadfast in momentousness, while others may seem at best quaint and at worst pompous. Nevertheless (after all it’s India, jiske paas Ma hai) the one message, which has been the most famous and continues to be after telegrams have fallen into lesser use is, “Mother Serious Stop Come Soon.”
For all its functional use, the telegram, like all means of quick communication, resonated with the idea of romance. It was a metaphor of being able to tell someone something as soon as you thought or felt it - sending a dil se taar. As a song from the film Patanga featuring lyrics by Rajendra Krishan had it Aankhon ka daak khana, nazron ke taar hain (the eyes are a post office and their glances quick telegrams). Indeed, a lover declaring their love through telegram was that marvellous thing - simultaneously terse and extravagant.
For some the telegram service shutting is not a matter of nostalgia - apparently it is still the only acceptable communication for jawans seeking leave. But for the most of us, there are a million more ways of communicating urgently from email to SMS to the mobile phone. The only question is really, whether we have any consensus on what is urgent.
When everything arrives at us with equal speed and intensity, it seems we might be unsure which needs the quickest response. Conversely, when the means of communication is so much at hand, routine matters have been turned into urgent ones - since we can communicate till the last minute, that’s mostly when we do, so we feel caught in a constant state of anxiety and crisis. Despite the number of words at our disposal, or maybe because of them, we feel we haven’t quite expressed ourselves. Or maybe we have and we feel we haven’t quite been heard and must say it again.
At the heart of it, this democracy of messages leaves us feeling both liberated and panicked; there is no hotline because everyone has one. Our sense of worth is often determined numerically - how many emails, messages and followers - but also speed - how quickly our own missives are responded to. Never have we been more self-important as a whole, nor felt so unimportant perhaps.
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevi.com. The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.