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Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Last Message...

**A short story**

July 14, 2013

I spent last night tossing and turning, making Shobha get up twice and bring me some water to deal with my dry throat. And when finally I felt the sun rays sifting through the small square window over my tired face, I got up, dressed for work, hurriedly gulped down breakfast Shobha prepared and left home before any of my sons had woken up. 

The outside looked just like it always did: the familiar smell of old brick and cement coming from age old houses on both sides of the narrow lane. Ours was right in the center of the gali so that it did not matter where you entered from. The distance would be the same. It had rained last night, just like it had been raining the past few nights. The ground had a musty smell about it, and as I carefully stepped over the puddles and muck, dawn gave in to a brighter day. I always believed people gave a lot of importance to everything at face value. It's wrong. If any of the regular folks would see me right now, they would see a 65 year old Badri in his regular white kurta pajama and brown Bata sandals, walking towards the closed down church (now kabootarkhana), to feed the birds and then going towards his shop in Kashmere Gate, working well past retirement. I wonder if they know. I wish they did, but on second thoughts, how does it matter to them? This day is different from the rest and probably for the first time in my life, I feel nervous about going to work. 

I pick up some flowers and agarbatti and reach my shop. I'm in a mixed state of mind when I see I'm not the first one there. I pass a smile at Madia. "I should be surprised to know you feel sentimental about today, but I'm not" I sigh as I add, "It's been a long time". The clerk's eyes displayed the kind of sadness that makes you wish like you never saw it. The kind that sucks out all hope. I did not want to see it. I looked around. Madia had already made the place look clean. A lot cleaner than before, in fact. "Sit down Badri sahib, I'll get tea for you," he said.

I saw the middle aged man disappear from the workroom. Turning to the small mandir, I lighted up the agarbatti and prayed. A little longer today. Lord Krishna's face stared back at me as I reminisced about the past, remembering all these years I sat here, in this office, knowing about lives and families of the people who came to me. I didn't know what my life would be when the day ended, I just knew it would be very different from how it has been in the last 50 years. I had been putting up a brave face all this time, but I always felt too exposed to God when I prayed, like He knew and it did not matter if tears rolled down while praying, because He understood. 

I shuffled across the room and sat down at my old desk. I opened the drawers, unlocked the machine, put my hands together on the worn out table, interlocking my fingers together, looking out the open door towards the morning street activity. I glanced at the round wall clock above my head. 9 a.m. Gautamaditya would be on his way, just like every second Sunday of the month. I breathed out and sat down to wait. 

Sept. 27, 1963

"Babaaaa!! Where are you going Baba? It is a Sunday! Won't you be home? Are you going out to eat? Will you please take me along?" Aadi fired these questions in his high pitched eight year old voice, running out barefoot in the verandah of their home. Jagmohan Lal smiled at the dancing boy and said, "Get your chappals and come along." A few minutes later they were walking down the tiny streets shaded with three storey houses in Daryaganj. Walking 4 kilometers with Aadi made him revisit history, for he felt happily obligated to answer the curious kid's curious questions about everything that came their way. It was 9.30 in the morning by the time they reached Somlal's office. They went in through the open door, straight up to the man behind a wooden desk and a machine on top.

"Ah, Jagmohan! Kya sandesa laaye ho?" Somlal started gathering up long thin strips of paper. He looked at Aadi through his wire rimmed glasses as Jagmohan pulled out his folder to take out a piece of paper. Aadi held on to a piece of his Baba's kurta, for he found this place very different, and he could barely contain his questions. Somehow he knew this was Baba's work and so he simply looked at the table and the machine on it. It was rectangular, almost a square, but not quite. Aadi did his maths well. He saw his Baba handing over a paper to the bespectacled man, who started pasting small strips of paper with funny dots and dashes on those long strips. Once done, he carefully inserted those into the machine, which beeped once, twice, thrice as they went in and out. "Do you like it, my first customer of the day?" 

Aadi was brought out of his reverie when he realized the man was looking at him, expecting an answer. "Yes! What happened? What is this?" He was now right next to Somlal, hand hovering over the machine, not sure whether to touch it or not. Somlal gently placed the boy's hand on top of the machine, a little warm from the effort. "This is a telegraph machine. Your Baba just sent a message to your eldest brother in Ranchi, asking him to come home for Diwali." Inspired by Aadi's awestruck expression and glancing towards the door in case he missed any customer, Somlal explained how telegrams were sent. 

Sept. 24, 1974

Aadi walked past the Red Fort in a hurry. His heart was thumping loudly, hammering across his chest as he skipped a few paces in the early dawn light. It is too early in the morning, he thought. He stood outside Somlal & Sons. Telegraph Office, the closed shutter making him want to tear up. He paced forward and back on the street, and then sat hunched in front of the office, waiting for someone to show up. 

It was 8.30 a.m. when he felt a hand on his shoulder. Badri, Somlal ji's son in his late twenties was standing there, looking at him worriedly. He got up. "Please Badri, I have to call bhaiya home. Ma is not well and I... she.. she's not well." Aadi handed him a paper with his short and to-the-point message. Badri hurriedly opened the office, made Aadi sit with a cup of tea ordered from the neighbouring dhaba and set to work. He loved the job, but the only thing that kept him from being happy while working was the fact that he would be the first to know bad news. Worse, the one to send the news to people who'd probably tear up just knowing they had a telegram. 

'Come home soon STOP Ma unwell END'

Jan 9, 1986

A 31 year old Aadi in an unwashed kurta looked way too enthusiastic than his appearance allowed. But he did not care. Entering the telegraph office, he opened his box of meethai and took out a barfi. "Muh meetha karo Badri! Aaj khushi ka dinn hai" he sang as a delighted Badri filled his mouth with barfi. "What's the good news?" 
"My wife brought a little Laxmi in our home! I have a daughter too now! She gave birth to the baby this morning! I have to send a telegram to bhaiya!"

'God blessed us with a baby girl STOP Come see her STOP We miss you END'

Mar 18, 1998

Aadi stood in a queue in Badri's office, the overhead fan not doing much to dry out his sweat. He regretted not going his Baba's way and sending telegrams in the morning. It became crowded at this time. Too many people with too many messages. I wonder how many of these people are sending threats to government officials, how many sending orders. Is there someone like me, waiting to send in a telegram saying I won't be here for a few years? That I'm being transferred and I'll live without my family all these years? I hope not, he thought.

He transcribed his message, sending it across to bhaiya and said a temporary, heart-felt goodbye to Badri. "I'll see you soon, friend. Take care." Badri smiled as he watched Aadi's familiar gait disappear around the corner.

'Transferred to Lucknow for three years STOP Keep checking on family END'

June 24, 2004

Walking through the quiet morning streets, Badri felt that familiar feeling of liberation, of being the only survivor in this brutal age when funny (but really not so funny) new developments in the field of technology were keeping people more inside their homes than ever. He did feel sad about a lot of things, his gradually declining number of customers for one. He was pleasantly surprised to see a well dressed Aadi standing outside his unopened office, a big box of sweets in his hand. 

"Good morning Aadi. It's so good to see you! What's the happy occasion?" Badri asked.
Aadi was beaming. "My daughter is a grown up girl now. Uske byah ka sandes bhejna hai. Here, this is an invitation for you" Aadi handed over the box and a card. "Mubarak ho Aadi ji! Half-century ke sath sath beti ka byah!"

'Sudha getting married next month STOP Sent invitation by post STOP Everyone happy END'

August 19, 2008

When Badri, in the middle of the process of encoding a message addressed to a government official, looked up and saw Aadi hobbling towards the office in the late monsoon evening, he sensed something was out of place. Aadi was usually the one for morning messages and only came in the afternoons or evenings when it was to send an urgent message. This time however, it didn't seem like he was in any hurry. By the time Badri finished writing and sending the message, Aadi had entered and taken a chair to wait for his turn. He looked absolutely and positively depressed and didn't seem to be in any hurry at all. Badri speedily worked on encoding, decoding messages, the poor machine sputtering as fast as it could. It was getting dark. He walked over to Aadi when the last customer exited, only to shake him and looking at a wrecked man. His face was caked with paths made of dried tears that kept on mixing with fresh ones. 

"It's Sudha," he whispered. "She suffered her third miscarriage. What is she going to do now?" Aadi flopped down on the chair dejectedly. Badri stood with his friend for a long time, just lending him his company. When Aadi got up to leave, he did not stop him. He hated this part of his job. Being the bad-news-breaker. People were scared of Badri's name, for it meant bad news.

'Sad news STOP Sudha miscarried again STOP Your brother Gautamaditya END'

July 14, 2013

Madia had brought in tea and for some reason, pakoras for both of us. Like it was supposed to be a party? I bit into the hot stuffed bread-pakora, feeling the heat on my gums, following it with a sip of chai. It was still early morning. Even if it wasn't, it wouldn't have made a difference for I got around 10 customers a day. Gone were the days when Somlal & Sons Telegraph Office was flooded with people of all shapes and sizes, in a hurry to send messages. I had forgotten what it was to be busy, but what would I even do after today? I wouldn't know even this level of busy. It wouldn't be an understatement if I said I was feeling thoroughly angry and equally sad. This wasn't fair, but if I had learned something looking at the thousands of lives I got to know through my messages, it was that life wasn't necessarily fair. And there was little one could do to change it and those who managed to live with that were tagged 'wise men'. 

It was late afternoon when Gautamaditya came in. I tried my usual smile, but all I could manage was a weak imitation. He seemed to understand. There was no paper on him and I wondered if he wished to send a message at all. It was unlike him to come empty handed. "Namaste Badri ji. I just came in to see you. I wondered when I would see you again." He fumbled for words but gave up soon. There was no sense in going circles around the main point. He knew it too, just like I do. Writing telegraphic messages for the past 50 years of my life, I certainly knew what it was to get to the fact of the matter. We were brothers in that same way. Aadi got up and stood over my machine, running his hands over its surface, picking up strips of paper and going through codes. Before I knew it, he started pasting codes on paper, quick and proper. I was shushed down but I was intrigued. Did Aadi know coding? 

After a short while the machine gave a beep. A new kind of a beep, one I rarely heard. An incoming message. Aadi sat down across the desk from me, pulled out enough money for a very long telegraphic message and handed it to me. He then held on to my left hand, just like I did when I delivered news of Sudha's miscarriage. Bewildered, I took out the incoming message. It read:

'I feel sad about telegram vanishing STOP It has been very special and important to me STOP Have shared happiness grief and sadness excitement and news with you and this office STOP You will be missed and I will feel terrible about having to send a message and not coming to you STOP I wanted this message to be the last one STOP Thank you dear friend END'

Yes, today marks the last day the telegram survives. 163 years of service and now all thanks to new means of 'faster' and 'effective' communication, it is no more required. I have personally never even seen a telegram. Apologies if there's anything wrong with what I wrote, as far as the technicalities are concerned. I just felt bad about it, not just because I love old stuff, but also because of it's emotional quotient. These things are truly valuable and no technology can make up for it. I guess that's the malady of change.

PS- The telegraph office is actually government owned (BSNL, to be precise), unlike a private office like I made it in the story.


  1. Wow I just loved your article. .. personally even I have never used it in my life.. but my grandma has and she used to always tells me story of how she used to let her sister's know about the latest happening in her life through telegram.. it meant so much to her :)

    1. :) That is cute. It's weird that I don't know much about it but I feel bad about it vanishing. I'm such a stickler for old stuff. Glad you liked it. Thanks so much! :D

  2. I just saw the word 'profoundness' in the labels and maybe that's what defines for me, the theme and the whole feel of this story.

    There was a sad feeling in me too, about the closing down of the telegraph system when I first read about it. Although I never used it and I wasn't certainly going to hoard the office like some others, just because I could get my name 'in the history' as I heard someone saying and make the people there work till 10 in the night, I felt bad mostly for the very same reason which you've highlighted through this sad yet beautiful story.

    I loved the story Ashna, it has a sort of personal feel about it. I loved the characters of Aadi, Madia and specially Badri, his will etched in my mind for a long time I think. And I loved the picture. :)

    I will look forward to more stories coming from you :)

    1. Thanks sooo much :D You've inspired me to write stories! Thankyou for giving me invaluable suggestions. :) I'd love to write more too!! :)

  3. This was one amazingly written story Ashna.. even I felt sad about the telegram shutting and all but then perhaps it was the right thing to do given the advanced technologies that we are surrounded with right now.

    Loved this one and yes just like Usama said, I want to read more such ones from you for they are truly profound!

    1. Thanks Me!!! :D You don't know! I always wanted to write stories and I'm super happy you guys are reading it andd liking it. Thanks Thanks Thanks :D

  4. This was one great tribute story Ashna.
    Needless to tell, even I felt a tinge of sadness over this news.

    Wonderful narration. You are getting awesomer and awesomer at this! :D
    Keep it up!


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