The Telegram.

An important decision has been taken by the Indian Posts & Telegraphs Department. Telegrams will no longer be sent / received as there is just not enough traffic in these days of mobile telephony and the internet.

That is a still from a Hindi film where the Postman delivering a telegram reads the contents to an illiterate lady. They would read letters and write replies to be taken back to the post office for onward despatch. This one service alone earned the postmen in India a high status in rural India. They would do the same in the cities too where necessary. I have blogged earlier about the great relationship that I have with the two postmen who deliver letters and other posted items to me and they are always welcome in my home. Sadly, at least as far the telegram is concerned, they will no longer be necessary. Now they are more important for the money orders that they deliver which too will pass once the plans to make available mini banks in rural India come to fruition.

As a Sales Manager, I once received the following telegram from one of our Travelers. “Gave birth to old lady and missed train. Will come to office day after tomorrow.” You can imagine the mirth that created.

That same Traveler, was sent to find and book a hall to hold an exhibition for us in a town in Gujarat. He sent this. “Found Vyapari Mandal ready to give hole to us. Vyapari Mandal is Merchant’s Chamber and “hole” is how Gujartis pronounce hall.

This Traveler was a resident of Bombay and would go on tours to upcountry markets and would return to Bombay to settle accounts, replenish stock of stationery etc, and take rest before proceeding on the next tour. He was an ace salesman but a timid fellow. We had to organise a conference of Travelers at short notice once, and the only way we could contact him was to send him a telegram. We came to know later that the telegram was not delivered to him because he would not open the door to the Postman. He simply could not believe that anyone would send him a telegram when he was at home. We had to send a person to his home to get him the next morning.

I had a particularly finicky boss who would keep my telegrams till I returned to base and would show me edited telegrams to impress on me as to how I could have saved a few rupees by using lesser number of words to convey the same message. I soon learnt how to be good at sending telegrams.

In India, we had a parallel system called the Phonogram. Those days, the Posts and Telephones were under one department and this worked quite well. One could call up the Telephones and they would call you back to ensure that the number was genuine before accepting the phonogram the cost of which would be added on the telephone bill at the end of each month. Since the clerks taking down dictated phonograms were not exactly masters of the English language, we often had hilarious spelling mistakes in the telegrams received. Phonograms used to be first read out to the recipient if he had a telephone and often what was read out did not make any sense. One had to wait for the confirmation copy to come to understand. Just four years ago, my father wanted to send a phonogram to one of his friends and was devastated to find that the phonogram does not exist any more.

The Post.

My earliest recollection of anything to do with post is the longing for letters from my mother when I was eight years old. My parents and my siblings were then in Bombay and I had been left with my paternal uncle at Madras as an experiment to see if I would be compatible with my childless uncle and aunt for them to consider adopting me. This was quite a normal practice in India those days, and in some places, still prevails. That experiment failed but this post is not about that.

I went to school in the same school where my aunt was a teacher and generally had a very pleasant time during that one academic year that I was with them. My mother would religiously write post cards addressed to me and I was the only one in my class receiving mail from anywhere and was quite a hero for that.

By the end of that period, my family moved to Madras and my parents took me into their home, and the letters stopped.

Subsequently, whenever we went to our village for holidays, we would see postmen delivering mail to our relatives in the village. They were called runners and would cover many villages in a day by running between them with a cloth bag slung over their shoulders and a spear in their hand. For those interested, some details of these runners can be had from this fascinating site.

That spear totting postman was replaced by this man who was captured carrying mail from the railway station to the local post office some years ago.

Nowadays, that postman has been replaced by vans like this:

Now, city dwellers hardly use the Postal services, as Courier organizations have captured the imagination of the urban public. It is however a vital service for the majority of Indians who live in small towns and villages and depend on the post for their communications and more importantly for those all important money orders that are sent by members of the family working in far away cities or even overseas like the Middle East.

After the first introduction to the post via post cards from my mother, I got hooked to the post again, but more glamourously this time. My elder cousin was a librarian at the United States Information Service library in Madras, and got me involved in a Pen Pal programme. I exchanged many letters with three boys of my age from the USA, and over the years, as all of us grew up and found more interesting things to do, we stopped corresponding. A few years ago, with exposure to Google and Face Book, I tried to find them with no success.

That interlude also exposed me to the unique specimen, the stamp collector. Some of my friends were stamp collectors, and I was quite popular as I could give them American stamps! The only things that I collected were, punishments and injuries and scars from sports and games.

The next stage in my exposure to the post was growing up further and exchanging mushy love letters, about which I do not wish to elaborate here.

Then came my working life when the Indian Post took a very important role in my activities. As a traveling salesman, and living away from my family, I had to depend on letters and money orders and had an Identity Card issued by the Postal Department to enable me to collect letters and money orders addressed to me Care Of Post Master in many towns. I also had to write daily reports and mail them and had to use a combination of the Indian Postal Service and the Railway Mail Service. Writing and receiving love letters continued during this period as well and for some time into my married life when, immediately after marriage, I was sent on an all India traveling assignment by my then employers and I had to leave my new bride at her maternal home for the duration.

At the end of that assignment, I got promoted into the management side and was at the receiving end of daily reports and orders from customers as well as writing a large number of letters and reports to customers and the head office. All these were through the Indian Posts and that practice continued well into my working life till faxes and telexes took over and eventually the mobile telephones and computers with emails.

For the past twenty years, I have stayed put in one place and have established a good rapport with the post office that is responsible for our area and its employees, particularly the two postmen who deliver mail to us. Their service is excellent and I have had occasions to take up their cause with truant despatch departments of magazines who tend to blame them for internal dislocations, resulting in my not receiving subscribed for magazines.

It is however sad that such a vital service oriented department, by and large very humane and efficient, finds its importance gradually eroding due to other faster means of communications. Courier companies have taken away a large chunk of their business and despite coming out with innovative new products, the department is unable to compete with the more efficient couriers who offer both collection and delivery services.

Sadly, I have met young people who have no idea of what role the Indian Post has played in the history of their country and find it quaint that we depended so much on snail mail and money orders. This is an attempt at informing them what an important part of life was the Indian Postal system for people of my and older generations.