No more stops

With the telegraph winding up, India loses one of the earliest markers of modernity

In old movies, telegrams are calamitous. They bring news of an ailing mother, a son killed in war, a particularly nasty relative planning to visit for three weeks. Tersely worded, printed out in capital letters, sentences ending with the dramatic "STOP", nothing can bring it home like a telegram. With BSNL shutting down its telegraph services by July 15, after more than 160 years, the telegram has fallen prey to the spread of the internet and cheap cell phones. Yet when the telegraph service was first set up in India, part of Lord Dalhousie's ambitious reforms, it was the symbol of an advancing, slightly frightening, modernity.

In 1850, William O' Shaughnessy, an Irish surgeon and inventor who had joined the Bengal Army, got permission from Dalhousie to string telegraph lines along a 27-mile stretch. Starting from Alipore, then three miles south of Calcutta, it went up to Diamond Harbour. In the next few years, this would turn into a gargantuan network, nearly 4,000 miles long. The network was crescent-shaped: from Calcutta, it travelled to Agra, then south to Bombay, then to Madras on the east coast. A tangent ran northwest through Delhi into Punjab. Tall iron rods supported by bamboo posts dotted the countryside, copper wires crossed roaring rivers.

For long, the telegraph was eyed with suspicion, as an emblem of imperial rule. During the uprising of 1857, it had been invaluable to the British and cutting telegraph wires was a favoured form of nationalist protest. Yet it brought various parts of the country closer together and eventually entered the traffic of everyday life. When the telegraph winds up, one of the oldest markers of a modern India will be lost. Stop.

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