14th July 2013 marked the last day of the telegram in India, a 163-year-old service known for its speed and brevity back in the day. Thousands of people must have been intimated of the news and happenings that may have changed their lives. News of births and deaths, acquisitions and losses, prosperity and destruction, countries becoming independent and being divided into two – events that shaped history and decided destinies must have been reported in short sentences punctuated by “stops”, quite literally.
As the telegram service came to its end, newspapers and social media went berserk announcing it. People, who are usually quite exhausted by the endless queues in India, voluntarily stood in line to send their last telegrams, however redundant they might have been. From the telegraph office in Mumbai, more than 3,000 telegrams were sent on the last day! And when the staff member announced the closure of the service at the end of the day, she broke into tears.
Is it not true then that as much as we applaud our progress in technology and services and ease of living, we still crave times when life was simpler? Or maybe it is because these are symbols of our childhood, of our years gone by, embossed with fond memories, only to be reminisced, never to come back again.
While the “death” of the telegram has caused much hue and cry, there are so many other things that have died their slow deaths without ceremony. Maybe because they have been replaced by jazzier substitutes, we do not miss them that often. But when the mind goes back to them now and then (and rarely nowadays), there is undoubtedly an instant tinge of nostalgia in our eyes and a happy smile on our lips. This post is dedicated to a few such symbols of my childhood days.
The single-screen theaters
These haven’t completely died out, but have long lost their glory. They are dilapidated structures heaving sighs waiting for a formal closure to be announced, if it hasn’t already. There was a time, before malls and multiplexes, when these theaters ruled the highest echelons of a city’s social scene. Hours of queuing up outside the minuscule ticket window to watch the movie of your favorite star, buying overpriced tickets in “black” because every seat for the first week had sold out, knowing that if you missed watching the movie in the theater, you would not get to watch it for years to come – every theater has thousands of stories woven into their histories. I miss the simplicity of the schedules – the four shows – noon, matinee, evening, night – 12,3,6,9. And if the movie was a huge hit, they would throw in a morning show.
They had their hierarchies and characters! English movies would only release in certain cinemas, typically the ones that the Englishmen frequented; the good Hindi ones in some; and the remaining in the majority of others. There were theaters that would only play movies in the vernacular, to stay true to their state and region! I remember being so angry about the fact that Arzoo (a Madhuri Dixit film that I’m sure she herself has forgotten about) did not release in a tier-1 cinema. Did they not consider a Madhuri film worthy of the top theaters? I remember the never-ending queues for Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. I remember buying tickets in black for Titanic. I remember watching small-budget movies like Mrityudand and Darmiyaan during the one weekend they would release for! Today I would just download them on my laptop.
It was the only channel on television when we got our first set in 1984. It was still called by its full name then. It was reduced to “DD” much later, as acronyms and “short forms” became the order of the day. Doordarshan consumed its audience, which was, in effect, the entire country. Communal viewings of television brought entire villages and neighborhoods together. There were iconic shows such as the epics Ramayan and Mahabharat that rendered the streets of India empty. Then there were soaps, such as Hum Log and Buniyaad that captured the imagination of the middle class. There were comedies such as Mr & Mrs, Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi, Mungeri Laal Ke Haseen Sapne and so on that made us kids laugh. Later, there were fairy tales such as Chandrakanta. Characters from these TV serials were household names. In fact, very few of them were known by their real names. Very recently, when I was watching a movie in a theater with Rupa Ganguly in it, the two women next to me whispered to each other “Oh Draupadi!”, referring to the character she had played in Mahabharat. My mother still calls all of them by their erstwhile screen names – Lalloo, Badki, Chhutki, Masterji, etc etc. And the advertisements would be the talk of the town – one-liners such as “Gold spot the zing thing” or characters such as Lalita-ji. And then there were the knowledge-based shows or travel shows or quizzes – the ones that our parents would make us watch even if we were dozing off in sleep. Surabhi and Turning Point come to mind immediately. There were also the once-in-a-while “educational” features, like the Ek Chidhiya Anek Chidhiya or the national integration ones such as Desh raag or Mile sur mera tumhara.
In fact, just the other day, I was thinking of the Doordarshan title music with the shehnai, and how the two red arcs would go in circles before perfectly fitting into each other. As a child, I always followed those beautiful red brushstrokes. Come to think of it, it was a pretty good design, even by today’s standards.
I remember the revolution brought about by two channels simultaneously on one television set!! There was DD1 and DD Metro. The latter brought with it even jazzier soaps such as Junoon, Imtihaan, Ajnabee, Kanoon etc that were braver and more stylish. My sister and I would know the TV schedules by heart and plan our homework around them. And if there was a favorite movie on TV for the first time (satellite rights were not sold in advance in those days), it called for celebration! Quite often, most ruthlessly, there would be a power cut during such movies or special events! I remember the Filmfare Awards of 1993. It was the only award show then, and there were no repeat telecasts! Moreover, it was shown live, quite unlike the heavily edited versions that are now telecast after the actual event. The electricity went off just before the final set of awards was to be announced. My sister and I craned our necks from the balcony to listen to the TVs from houses on the other side of the road (which had power because the Chief Minister’s son lived there), and in that hot dark summer night, even though we saw nothing, I rejoiced that Madhuri won and my sister sulked over Sridevi losing. Cute no? Doesn’t happen anymore J
Last year, a few days after Diwali, a postman of the Indian Postal Service rang my doorbell. He wanted bakhshish. After tipping him, I wondered when the last time was that I had received a “letter” – a proper letter, with cursive handwriting scribbled on page after page, talking about incidents, updates, feelings. Recently, my family and I visited the house in which I grew up. My mother pointed to a window and said – “This is where I would check again and again for the postman”. I imagined a much younger woman with two children, far away from her near and dear ones, waiting for news of her mother, brother and other loved ones. How different from now – when typing an email has become too much effort. We just write on each other’s Facebook timelines.
My mother used to always have a stack of those blue-colored “Inland Letters”. After she packed us off to school and completed her household chores, she would sit down and write her letters in peace. There was never enough space to talk about everything that had happened since the last time she had written, but those weren’t times of plenty anyway. We would be jubilant when we received letters – from grandmothers and aunts, and sometimes the New Year or birthday wishes from cousins and friends. For the more concise letters, there were the yellow-ochre one-sided postcards.
We made “pen friends” – from other cities and countries. We talked about our lives, our schools, the games we played. The conversations would never go too far for lack of common ground. But the thrill of knowing someone in some other part of the world and being able to correspond with them is something every child should experience.
Later, when I was living in a hostel, my sister and I would exchange letters running into tens and twenties of pages! Newly separated after an entire childhood together, we had so much to share. Nothing could be missed! If one of us were to become famous in our lifetimes, those letters would become sought after and eventually, would either be published as a book or auctioned for millions J. Pity we don’t have most of them anymore!
In the days prior to the STD (Standard Trunk Dialling), that made calling from one city to another happen like magic, there was the Trunk Call. It was expensive and used only in times of extreme need and importance. I remember my father placing a “request” to an operator at some exchange, giving her the number to be called in Calcutta. She would call back after a while and make the connection between the two phones. The two parties would then talk, aware of how much it was costing them. They would exchange the most important piece of news and hang up without ceremony. Today, I really don’t know how they did it. To not be able to speak to someone I love and miss at length is a feeling I have forgotten.
This will always remain my favorite! Through my years of living abroad, when there was no occasion to travel by train in India, I missed it. And when I moved back, I made up for it. There is something magical about an Indian train. You get to meet people from all across the country. At times, they irritate you. But mostly, you expand your horizons and end up having conversations you remember fondly later. Then the constant flow of chai keeps you going. And finally, it is the never-ending farmlands and rural houses and children on bicycles of an India that we are so unfamiliar with that reminds of you of the beauty and wretchedness of this country. Recently, I took the train for a 26-hour journey. I equipped myself with multiple books so I would not feel bored. I ended up staring outside the window during daytime and talking to my co-passengers after dark.
As children, we would embark on the train for our historic summer holidays to Calcutta! I loved the seat that would put me in the direction opposite to the train’s. We would have to change trains in Madras. The journey was almost 36 hours long, taking up 2 nights. Flights were too expensive to avail of, except for emergencies. But we never complained. In fact, we looked forward to these train journeys that formed an integral part of our vacations. We remembered the names of stations in sequences, the names of rivers we were crossing, the lengths of the bridges, the quirks of our co-passengers and so much more. These still make for good conversation sometimes.
This is probably the only legacy of those times that shows no signs of giving up! Indian Railways still ferries millions of people of all classes across this massive subcontinent. It has reinvented itself in the form of new routes and faster trains. It has improved its services in terms of punctuality, cleanliness and ease of bookings. Indian Railways is not going anywhere in a long long time.
Recently, in a conversation with a friend, I referred to myself as “a product of the 80s”. It’s surprising how naturally it came to me, to think of myself as a “product” of the 80s. It made me wonder if, in spite of the multiple revolutions the world has gone through in the past few decades, some small but significant part of me still lives in the era of no cable television or mobile phones or internet or smart phones. And even as I type this on a laptop and post it on an online blog and go back to texting on my smart phone, I have to say this – 80s I miss you stop