The Hindu, 14 July 2013. The Ministry of Telecommunications will disconnect telegram services from Monday.

“For decades, they delivered news to people across the country. But with the advent of technology and newer means of telecommunication, they will be edged out in a couple of days as the Ministry of Telecommunications has decided to disconnect telegram services from July 15.”

The end of the telegraph service. The end of one more era that resonates in my memory as part of my growing up, and as part of my family and an older generation.

The telegram was always part of my childhood. It signaled big events and brought joy or grief to our family. But the nature of the telegram was to anticipate bad news since the telegram more often brought news of the passing away of a relative. Whenever the postman shouted “telegram” at our front door, especially if it was late in the evening, there was always a feeling of dread. My father would always be the first to rush out and he would even ask the postman what the news was before signing for the telegram, to reassure himself that it wasn’t bad news. Then the postman would curve open the telegram to peek inside, and tell us it was not anything dreadful.

When my father passed away, I took the task of going to the Mylapore telegraph office and sending telegrams to inform my sisters and others. It was one of the most heart wrenching moments of my life. Until then, occupied with a number of tasks that morning like visiting my close relatives, informing the parish priest, etc. I had been composed, my grief quite well-hidden among the funeral chores. But as I stood at the telegraph counter and wrote up the forms for sending the telegrams, I could not help but break down. The realization that my father was no more with us finally hit me when I wrote the message of his passing away and the addresses of those in my family and handed them across the counter, as grief along with a thousand memories passed through me.

The telegram was a part of my summer holidays especially those I spent away from Chennai (or Madras as it was still then called). My eldest brother-in-law J. John Vincent worked in the telegraph office in Palani. During my summer holidays, ‘Vincent Mama’, as we used to call him, would come to Madras to accompany me (and also sometimes my other elder sister) back to Palani to stay for a few weeks with my  sister’s family. Some evenings, after about dinner at nine, mama would head to his office for the night shift, his house being located very conveniently right across the street from his office. Often I would walk with him, as he prepared his “vethalae-pakku” (betel leaf and areca nuts) and then lit a post-dinner cigarette.

I would sit with him in the telegraph office, with the rest of the building dark and quiet, as the two telegraph rooms were the only one open at that time of the evening. He would take forms from people and send telegrams, tapping on the morse key. He would joke to me, “ta, tada, tada da, …” imitating the dot, dash, dot, stutter of the morse keys. I was impressed when he explained how he had memorized all the different words in morse code. Often people would tell him in Tamil the news they wished to send. He not only needed to translate but brevity was all important: he had to string together the fewest words possible as every word cost the person money.

When things were quiet, and most nights they were, we would adjourn to a nearby room with a carrom board, and he and his colleague would smoke and play carrom and which I occasionally was asked to join as well.

Vincent Mama passed away some years ago, the result of too many years of smoking “wills plain” cigarettes, the non-filtered strong-smelling cigarette that he loved. He passed away almost as soon as he retired, leaving my sister in a great deal of shock as they both had plans to do many things together including travelling once he had retired.

Those long summer evenings of my school days are filled with memories of the telegraph office where he worked, where I would sit and watch, fascinated by not just the machine and its morse code, but also the people who came to send telegrams.

Vincent Mama’s birthday was on 19 July, in just a few days from today when India is shutting down its telegraph services. Its fittingly so, as we always remember Mama and his work in the post and telegraph services (often saying proudly that he had  a “central government” job), and helped people to send their family news through the telegram.

Ta, tada, ta da da.