Inside the whitewashed building with its British-era colonnades, people busied about their work over the constant chatter of an electronic printer. Paper would be torn off and the printer started again.
For many decades, people have been coming to Delhi’s Central Telegraph Office to send word of news of the most momentous nature – births and deaths, condolence and congratulation – across India and around the world.
But no more. This week, the authorities announced that after 163 years, the telegram service is to be brought to a final full stop. The spread of mobile phones and internet access to even the most remote parts of the country means the demand for telegrams is no longer there. After 15 July they will be no more.
“When I started there’d be so many telegrams that we could not keep count of them – maybe as many as 10,000 a day,” said RD Ram, the chief telegram officer who has worked in the office for 40 years. By contrast, he said that by late afternoon on Thursday the office had dealt with no more than 250.
The telegram has enjoyed a long and colourful history in the sub-continent, where it is known as the “taar”. It began in 1850, just six years after Samuel Morse sent the first such message in the US, when a young Irishman, William Brooke O’ Shaughnessy, was tasked by the East India Company with laying down the first telegraph line.
That first stretch of wire reached only from Kolkata to Diamond Harbour, a southern suburb in the city, but within three years the company had built more than 4,000 miles of cable and could communicate almost instantly with all major cities.
It was not only for trade that the telegram served the East India Company. Historians believe that in 1857, when Indian troops rebelled, sparking a widespread uprising against colonial rule, the telegram played a crucial rule in helping British forces regain control in a bloody crackdown.
A wealth of important announcements have been delivered by means of the telegram. No more so perhaps than the 230-word message sent in October 1947 by India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru to his counterpart in London, Clement Attlee, informing him that the disputed state of Kashmir had been invaded by Pakistani forces and requesting Britain’s help.
“We have received urgent appeal for assistance from Kashmir government,” it read. “We would be disposed to give favourable consideration to such request from any friendly state.”
The messages of most ordinary users may not have borne such strategic information. But across thousands of miles of small-town and rural India, the telegrams bore messages that could not otherwise be delivered as quickly or reliably.
At the central office in Delhi, a board showed a list of 44 numbered messages that users could select if they did not want to write their own. Lots related to religious holidays. They ranged from the simple – Happy Diwali Greetings (number 4) – to the more elaborate – Heartiest Greetings on the occasion of Chatrapati Maharaja Shri Agrasen Jayanti (number 43-a).
“Usually we are too busy working to notice the messages,” said Usha Gautum, who had worked in the office for 31 years and who now, like thousands of other staff, is waiting to be redeployed. “But I like it the most in the new year when we are sending out official awards.”
For all the romance attached to the telegram, officials at the Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL), a state-owned telecommunications company said the service was making considerable losses. A senior official told the Times of India newspaper: “The telegram has lost its relevance. The basic idea was to send a message fast. Now SMS, fax and emails do that job. With smart phones, people send and receive emails on the move.”
But some believe the telegram has role. Mr Ram, the chief officer said that for soldiers requesting leave or else a court requesting certified information, a stamped telegram was still the only document accepted.
Telegraph offices around the country once employed huge teams of delivery men to dispatch the messages to people’s homes. In the main Delhi office there were once 500, but today there are just 15.
There is undoubted frisson to sending a telegram as The Independent discovered when it sent a message to itself.
First one needs to fill in the form containing the details of the person to whom the message is to be sent, then the sender’s details, then the all-important message – Thanks for the memories! – and then hand over the 25 rupee (27 pence) fee for the first 30 words. (Telegrams containing news about someone’s death are subsidised and cost just five rupees for the first 30 words.)
“Birthdays, grieving, condolences, interviews, bank statements – I have sent everything,” said VL Meena, as he typed out the message.
Among the people making their way to the office to send a telegram on Thursday was 52-year-old businessman Pradeep Rajgarhia. Mr Rajgarhia said he had not sent a telegram for 15 years but that morning his elder brother, Dinesh, had called from Mumbai and told him that the telegram service was ending.
“He said you better send me a happy birthday message and I will keep the telegram for the children,” said the businessman.
Mr Rajgarhia said he had decided to act immediately, even though his brother’s birthday was not until August. And since he had come to the telegram office, he had taken the opportunity to send a birthday message to his favourite Bollywood star, Sridevi Kapoor, an actress who soared to fame in the 1980s.
The staff at the office said they received all sorts of telegrams. Many were addressed to government officials. Some were threatening, others were more pleading.
One of the telegrams received on Thursday was from Traffic Ramaswamy, a former mill worker and well-known social activist from the city of Chennai.
Mr Ramaswamy’s message was addressed to India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh. It said: “I urge you to drop this anti-people activity of closing the telegram.”