India's Telegraph, Once Gandhi's E-Mail, Stutters to an End

Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is based in New Delhi. His novel "Arzee the Dwarf" is published by New York Review Books. Follow him on Twitter at @Hashestweets.
Read More.
a | A

It was the text-messaging service of its age, an invention as awe-inspiring in its time as electricity, flight and the moving image.

For more than 100 years across the 19th and 20th centuries, its gnomic messages, worked into Morse code and out into language again, then delivered by postmen, connected human beings in faraway places. It announced births, marriages and deaths; called soldiers home from war or announced their demises to their families (or changed the course of the war itself); confirmed job offers or remittances to anxious and impatient souls. The voice of history whenever it was in haste, it was stoic by nature -- concealing waves of emotion under its impassive, attenuated syntax -- and easily available to rich and poor, in city and village.

In India, it was installed by the British as a way of administratively and militarily linking upthe vast reaches of the subcontinent. But it became one of the engines of the freedom movement, a way for the Indian migrant to keep up a tenuous link to the world he had left far behind. The Indian word for it was "taar," or wire, invoking an image more concrete than the English "telegraph." (The "wire," in English, was claimed by news media services.) Long after the rest of the world had moved on to more advanced technologies, the humble telegraph continued to enjoy great currency in India, before the onset of the digital revolution began to chip away at its hegemony. But the end has been in sight for some years now.

With the explosion of the mobile-phone revolution in the last decade (described recently in "The Great Indian Phone Book"), the telegraph service began for the first time to appear anachronistic. Text messages sent from mobile phones began to make the taar service seem quaint, even to rural users. This weekend, Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd, the state-run company that runs the system, is finally set to wind down its telegraph service for good, just as Western Union decided in 2006 that it was over for its telegrams in the U.S. Almost 16 decades after a member of the Indian public sent a telegram for the first time in 1855, the telegram will finally give up the ghost in one of its last surviving redoubts.

The Indian telegraph service still processes about 5,000 telegrams each day (most of them government notifications). But the system is expected to see a spike this weekend as many older people use it one last time out of nostalgia, while another, younger set is moved to try it out the first time for an unforgettable retro experience to describe someday to grandchildren. When BSNL made its decision last month, correspondents headed for telegraph offices in India's major cities -- perhaps for the first time in their lives. Two of the best accounts of the service in its twilight came from Shivam Vij in the Christian Science Monitor and Suryatapa Bhattacharya in The National. Vij wrote:

At their peak in 1985, 60 million telegrams were being sent and received a year in India from 45,000 offices. Today, only 75 offices exist, though they are located in each of India's 671 districts through franchises. And an industry that once employed 12,500 people, today has only 998 workers.

One of them is R.D. Ram, who has been working in the Delhi office for 38 years. "They will now move me to another department where I will feel like a fresher [beginner]," he complains.

And in "RIP India's telegram service:1851-2013," Bhattacharya found another figure gloomily contemplating the obsolesce of his life's work:

RP Gaur's name appears at the bottom of a large wooden plaque that lists the tenures of office holders since 1962.

As chief superintendent of India's telegraph services, Mr Gaur said he had an inkling that his would be the last name on record. ...

Mr Gaur has been chief superintendent since 2004 but joined the service in 1979 in Delhi as a supervisor, which put him in charge of rooms full of people tapping out the dots and dashes of Morse code on telegraph machines.

The clicking and clacking from the building was so loud that it could be heard from the front gates a few hundred metres away, Mr Gaur said.

Elsewhere, the historian David Arnold supplied an overview of the telegraph as the motor of 19th-century globalization, linking up financial and commodity markets across continents:

Reports of war, famine and insurrection sped along the wires, providing copy for journalists and data for merchants and investors. The rise of Bombay from the 1860s owed much to the inflow of telegraphic information about cotton and other commodity prices. The size and location of main telegraph offices on central thoroughfares like Calcutta's Dalhousie Square and Bombay's Churchgate made them prominent inner-city landmarks. The telegraph thrust India into a new age of globalised communication. By the 1880s, its leading cities were connected by wire to London and other European capitals, and over 20,000 miles of lines crisscrossed the subcontinent.

The most influential Indian user of the telegraph -- a man whose nature, tending toward parsimony in both language and money, suited the telegram very well -- was probably Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi used the telegraph extensively in his working life in South Africa and India to stay in touch with his confidantes, link up the many strategists of the Indian freedom movement and put pressure on the empire that had brought the telegram to the subcontinent. When Gandhi was assassinated in 1948, telegrams swiftly broadcast the shocking news around the world.

Now, the telegram itself passes away in India, taking down with it an entire matrix of technology, language and feeling that kept a door open to many Indian pasts.

(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for World View. Follow him on Twitter.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Chandrahas Choudhury at

To contact the editor on this story:
Zara Kessler at