Even into the late 90s, telegrams were what you sent in India, if you want something to go viral – be it good or bad news. It was the #twitter for 160 years. The catch was, you had to be concise – every letter, number and sign counted. You have to think of what you wanted to say and then try and say it in as few words as possible. If you turned up at the telegram counter, it meant you have something so important to say that you are willing to pay hard cash for it.
Receiving a telegram, on the other hand, was filled with trepidation. It usually brought bad news, as bad news travels faster than any other kind (except videos of Psy which travels at speed of light). So if the post man enters your gate and announces “telegram”– it was, literally, a matter of life or death. It meant someone has either passed away or is about to or a new life has come into this world. Either way, life came to a standstill at the receiving end. Sometimes people would shoot the messenger and curse the post man that delivered the bad news or he would be praised for bringing the good news. Then life at that household would take a deep-breath and continue.
Imagine my surprise then, when I received a telegram on a fine day in July 1998 at my hostel room in IITMadras. I was terrified to open it- it was from my home town but I knew of no one that is close to me or my family, who was having a baby. By clever process of elimination, my mind had come to the conclusion it must be death then that the telegram carries. With trembling hands, I opened the blue telegram and it said “come to Madurai – A”. I exploded in relief and anger.
‘A’ was a German exchange student at my university in 1998. He and a couple of his friends were on a road trip around South India and he was on his way to my home town, Madurai. He knew that I had taken other German exchange students to my place in Madurai. And he had the gall to send me a telegram, ordering me to come to Madurai. I was so offended that I must have ranted for an hour to my friends about this spindly, blond, condescending German guy! What was he thinking of himself?! I should drop everything I have and coming running to play tour guide?!? How dare he?!?
After that angry adrenaline come down, I went off to classes and my life continued. But I kept the telegram. Looking back now, I wondered if my heart knew what my head did not. In any case, the telegram was carefully saved and was brandished when ‘A’ got back, as an example of how rude he had been to me.
‘A’ listened patiently to my carefully controlled outburst and asked to see the telegram. I threw it, well, not in his face, he is more than a head taller than me, lets say I threw it in his general direction. He looked very stricken after reading it and told me that he had put a question mark at the end of the statement but the telegraph guy had not included it! I was speechless.
He was on a budget travel and he really wanted to see me. He decided on sending a telegram. As he had to compress his message, he thought instead of writing “Please Come to Madurai(Stop)”, he would write “Come to Madurai(question mark)”. I don’t think the telegraph guy/lady ever had to send a message with a question-mark in it, so they turned it into a full stop.
That was the story of how punctuation caused our first lovers’ tiff though at that time I had no inkling that this is going to be a love story. It has been fifteen years now since that telegram, but my husband has never forgotten his lesson in the importance of correct punctuation, even in emails.
- The World’s Last Telegram Will Be Sent Next Month (newser.com)