How the telegram was significant to Indian journalism

Jul 14, 2013, 04:37 IST | Raj Kanwar

A veteran journalist, who began his career in the late 1950s, remembers when the telegram was the lifeline of a news correspondent and the various codes used for stories, addresses and special occasions

With the demise of the telegram, I can’t help but recall how this humble and jumbled piece of paper once played a very significant role in the successful discharge of duties by an outstation or overseas press correspondent. The telegram then was a prerequisite for a correspondent as that was the sole medium he could use for sending his stories.

The Central Telegraph Office at Fort will send the last telegram today, closing down a 160-year-old service. Pics/Sayed Sameer Abedi

Newspapers all over the world would necessarily employ or retain a correspondent in important countries or even theatres of conflict wherever those developed from time to time. And they would send their stories through telegrams. Thus was born the legendary tribe of ‘war correspondents’.

Personally speaking, I have had a fascinating introduction to press telegrams as a rookie correspondent for a number of mainstream national newspapers in mid 1950s. Most newspapers in India then retained part time correspondents in the capital of a province or even in some small towns. Dehradun then was a tiny blip on the country’s political map, yet along with Mussoorie, it had acquired a formidable reputation as an important news centre thanks to the frequent visits there of Jawaharlal Nehru and other VVIPs.

An outstation staff correspondent was then a rarity. Some of the newspapers paid a fixed monthly retainer fee while others paid retainer plus ‘lineage’. This meant that the length of the news per column inch would be paid. It was during that period that I learned the nitty-gritty of writing telegraphic news, keeping in view some essential points that would impact its length and consequently on the telegraphic charges.

The telegraph charges were per word not exceeding 10 characters. Another word would be added to the cost if it exceeded 10 characters. That way, I became accustomed to using smaller words; it was a good training. Yet, despite being particular on smaller words, I did not penny pinch and wrote full and clear sentences, unmindful of the cost involved.

A new ‘journalese’ jargon had by then come into vogue since Morse code only conveyed English alphabets. For instance, we wrote ‘stop’ instead of just putting a dot and expressed punctuations in words such like ‘COMMA’, ‘DASH’, ‘UNDASH’ and so on, so as not to leave any room for confusion or misunderstanding. We wrote ‘PARA’ when beginning a new paragraph. And at the conclusion of the message, we always put ‘EOM’ meaning ‘end of message’.

A most proud acquisition was a press card issued by the Post and Telegraph department that enabled a correspondent to send press telegrams without any prepayment; the bills were sent to the newspapers concerned that would pay the same every month to the department.

Much later in 1970s, when I started a business, the telegram was one of my best means of communications with my international associates in the US and Europe. Even telex had not yet then made its debut in the Indian communication world. Happily, there was a much less expensive category of foreign telegram known as ‘letter telegram’, which virtually served the same purpose although it was not necessarily sent the same day.

Even in the 1970s, the telegraph technology had lacked direct overseas ‘connect’ and telegrams sent from Dehradun to the US would first go to the international telegraph office in New Delhi from where these would be further transmitted to their foreign destinations.

Yet, it was worthwhile since we were able to promptly communicate with our overseas business associates. Most of the companies had also acquired a special one-word telegraphic address that saved the sender much expense on giving a lengthy address.

My telegraphic address then was ‘liaison’ and that enabled us to maintain unhindered business correspondence. With the advent of telex in 1980s, the use of the telegram became very infrequent, yet we continued to retain and print our registered telegraphic address just as a matter of prestige.

Even though now SMS and Smart phones with various applications mean messages can be transmitted almost free in a matter of seconds, old timers will miss the grace of sending a ‘greeting’ telegram that we used to send on special occasions to our friends and relatives.

The telegraph department had then introduced nearly 40 greeting codes each with a figure; for example the Republic Day greetings had ‘19’ as a code and the sender just has to write ‘nineteen’ to convey the entire message that would be delivered on a specially decorated paper. These codes included greetings for almost all the religious festivals across religions.

They also included congratulatory messages on different occasions and even ‘happy birthday’ greetings. There was also a code for offering ‘best wishes for success in an examination’. More than all of that however, we will miss the telegram ‘boy’ who, during my business years, was a welcome daily visitor to our office and a special guest on occasions like Holi and Diwali.

Raj Kanwar is a Dehradun-based author and freelance writer.

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