Believes life is one long learning...

Vinay Kamath

My one and only telegram, hic!

| Updated on June 28, 2013


Much nostalgia has been evoked about the death of the telegram. I remember very vividly the first night I got my one and only telegram. It was 1985 and I had just graduated in economics from Vivekananda College and was pretty much on a loose limb waiting for some admissions to pan out. It was also the day I had my first drink, so that’s why I can’t forget the telegram day. A few friends and I gathered at a Chinese restaurant – on Greames Road off Chennai’s Mount Road, if I remember right – and surreptitiously poured some gin into glasses and topped it with some lemony drink. The heart was pounding - the excitement of quaffing some forbidden alcohol and the fear of being caught and turfed out of the restaurant!

With that light-headed feeling, and the false sense of general bonhomie that alcohol brings on, I went home and could spot my brother waving and yelling something from the entrance. It was a telegram announcing that I had been selected for admission to the Indian Institute of Mass Communication in Delhi. I still remember to be overwhelmed by that short and terse telegram saying I had been selected and to report in 10 days’ time. It was also, I recall, mixed feelings of exhilaration and trepidation – the former at being selected and the latter for one was to leave home for the first time to distant Delhi.

I held on to that telegram for years, preserving the enormity of an achievement for me. Till the lines faded out and I had to discard it. These days you can preserve stuff on hard disk drives, pen drives and what not. I don't think I got any telegrams after that; in a few years of working life came the faxes and the pagers – the latter quickly became a dead duck with the coming of the mobile phone. Fax machines, surprisingly, have survived all these years but are threatened with extinction.

Another vestige of those years which has got obliterated by the coming of computers and the Internet is the teleprinter, which this generation of youngsters would regard a strange beast. Newspaper offices would have a separate chamber reverberating to the sound of teleprinters which spewed out lengthy reams of copy which were sliced into manageable sheets which we had to edit on.

The local office of the magazine I worked for in the late '80s was equipped with two teleprinters but sleek fax machines hadn’t arrived as yet. I recall my Editor calling me urgently to go fetch an overdue article from D. Shivakumar, who headed Nokia in India for several years, and who displayed an early proclivity to write fine thought pieces. He was a young brand manager in Lipton then. I had to dash off on my bike and get the piece from him and hand it over to our teleprinter operator to key the whole thing in and despatch it.

Being the sole correspondent of a magazine published out of Bombay (as it was called then) meant you were messenger, despatch boy and correspondent all rolled into one. One assignment as despatch boy was to fetch a weighty article from P. Chidambaram’s residence and ensure that it was ‘teleprintered’ out in time for the edition. The FM wasn’t in government then and wrote a well-read column for the magazine.

Why telegrams and teleprinters only? What about the humble typewriter? Those huge Facit-branded machines, in which we had to insert three sheets and carbon paper - all reports had to be in triplicate - one for your file, one for the teleprinter, and one by the courier to the editorial desk! Bashing those hard keys and 'returning' the carriage for the next line to be typed..and, mind you, no delete button. You made a mistake, there was white typewriter fluid to smudge it over with.

In the past two decades, so many things have faded out of our lives, especially for the generation which is in its 40s - and older, of course - and will probably be museum pieces for Gen next. The rotary telephone, first class compartments, bedding rolls, and in newspapers, the news desk. Everybody still calls it the desk, which is actually today a large air-conditioned hall with many desks and banks of computers. The desk, was literally that, a horseshoe shaped table at the centre of which sat the news editor doling out sliced teleprinter copy for sub-editors to edit on.

In most offices air-conditioning was a comfort yet to arrive. Large fans churned the air lazily and there was no click of the keyboard to punctuate the silence as you worked. Till the reporters came in later in the day and started bashing the typewriter keys and the clackety-clack of the machines went on till late evening.

Published on June 28, 2013

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