Letters, Telegrams and Post Offices — Tradition and Technology
TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 1 Jun 2020
26 May 2020 – Before the advent of the modern means of communication–email, SMS, Instagram, WhatsApp, etc–people used to depend mainly on the Post Offices which were instrumental in sending letters and telegrams within the country and overseas. Another feature of this institution was its ability to send even money by means of what was called money order. Modern online transmission of funds by banks was not heard of— at least for ordinary customers.
A person working in a town would often send money orders to his parents or wife or children through this means. This would not only fulfill the economic needs of the family members but also be a proud moment for the parents who could boast about the success of their son working in the town. This facility is still available in select Post Offices of India.
Telegrams were the best means of urgent communication with one another. Congratulatory messages on the occasion of marriages or anniversaries, success in examinations or getting a job could be sent by telegraphic means.
Any unexpected event such as illness or death of a person could also be transmitted by telegram. The telegraphic institution was started in India around 1850. The first transmission of a message was done by the American Samuel Morse in May 1844 from Washington to Baltimore, a distance of about 65 km. The invention spread quickly in many parts of the world including the British ruled India.
Although telegrams were necessary for urgent transmission of messages, it was the ordinary letter sent by Post Office that was used by most people. Letters could be sent within one’s country or to overseas destinations. When I had gone to USA for my doctoral research more than half a century back, I would often send letters to my parents in India. Imagine my pleasure when on my return, my Father showed me a bunch of my letters preserved by him.
Many Indian politicians including Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru who were struggling for independence were imprisoned by the colonial masters. However, they were allowed to write letters to their colleagues or family members. Mr Nehru who became India’s first Prime Minister after independence, used to write regularly to his daughter Indira Gandhi (not related to the Mahatma), who also subsequently became Prime Minister of India. These letters were subsequently published under the title Letters from a Father to his Daughter in 1929.
Sometimes when an illiterate villager received a letter, it was the postman who would be asked to read the contents of the letter. Postmen were treated with respect and affection in India.
Occasionally there were certain mishaps by the delay of receiving a letter. I remember when I was a ten-year-old child I went to Shimla to spend my summer holidays with an uncle who lived there. My mother wrote a letter to him about the time I would be reaching Shimla. Imagine my consternation when I did not see him at the bus station. How I reached his home later would make an interesting story by itself. But the reason he did not come to receive me was simple — he received my mother’s letter only after I arrived in his home.
As mentioned earlier, telegrams were often used for urgent communications. But with the modern means of communication that were being discovered by technology including telephone and internet, its use was quickly diminishing. There was a debate in the Indian government whether to continue with its limited usage or to stop it altogether. The telegram service had already been discontinued in Britain in 1982.
Finally on 15 July 2013, the service came to an end after about 160 years of service in India. It was a sad day for many persons, including me.
Tradition or modernity usually provides such events in our lives. Whether we treat them with equanimity or sadness depend on individuals’ background and age. But life goes on; we are attached in various ways to several aspects of life including family, wealth, political or institutional positions, etc. We were also attached to the service that telegrams provided.
As the Bhagwad Gita teaches, we should rise above attachment if we want to live in peace and harmony.
Dr Ravi P Bhatia is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment, an educationist, Gandhian scholar and peace researcher. Retired professor, Delhi University. His new book, A Garland of Ideas—Gandhian, Religious, Educational, Environmental was published recently in Delhi. email@example.com
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 1 Jun 2020.
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