On July 15 India’s telegraph service will deliver its last telegram. Before faxes, it used to transmit hundred of thousands every day; now its traffic has dwindled to 5,000 a day. With 900 million mobile phones, Indians no longer need telegrams. “End of an era. Stop. India scraps the telegram. Stop.” was the headline in the London Telegraph.
In that vast country, the network of telegraph lines set up in the 1850s was crucial to the survival of the British Raj. The important cities of Calcutta, Agra, Bombay, Peshawar, and Madras were all quickly connected as soon as the technology became available. When the Sepoy Rebellion set India aflame in 1857, it was put down with the help of 5,000 km of wire. As he walked to the gallows, one rebel pointed to a telegraph line and cried, “There is the accursed string that strangles us.”
As a child and adolescent in pre-Partition India, I took the telegraph system for granted. It was how we sent good news and bad news — congratulations for births and weddings and condolences for deaths.
My father was the Chief Engineer of the Great India Peninsula Railway, and on some of his tours of inspection I travelled with him. The wires on which telegrams were transmitted were strung on telegraph poles sited on either side of the railway lines. As I watched them flash past I often daydreamed about the messages they carried and whether there would be joy or tears at the other end.
What will happen to all those poles after July 15?
Sadly, like all technology, telegraph poles can be used for good and evil. They helped to put down the 19th century Rebellion with great slaughter. And only 90 years later, during the terrible, murderous riots accompanying the Partition into India and Pakistan, they once again became a deadly weapon.
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In 1948 I was holidaying in Simla, a holiday resort in the foothills of the Himalayas which also was the summer capital of the British government prior to Independence. The British could not stand the heat of Delhi, so they moved the entire government there for the summer. At a YWCA in Simla, I met a young woman, Sindhu, who was recovering from severe malnutrition and she told me her story.
Sindhu came from a poor Hindu family who farmed a small plot of land in one of the Muslim-majority provinces of India which were to become part of Pakistan.
While working in the family fields, Sindhu met a handsome young Muslim university student named Ahmed, who lived in the nearby town and who liked to go for long walks to clear his head after a day of studies. Casual conversation led to friendship and to love.
Their romance was doomed from the start. Not only was there the explosive issue of Hindu-Muslim religious difference, but there was also a major disparity in their social status. Sindhu was from a poor Hindu peasant family and had only a primary school education. He came from an upper middle-class Muslim family and would soon be a university graduate. Her family had decided to move east, fearing that Hindus would be a persecuted minority in the new Pakistan.
Then the riots began in which over a million would be killed along the border, both Hindus and Muslims. Flight to India became urgent. Somehow her family scrounged enough money for rail tickets, but they knew the trains would be packed before they reached their nearest station. They might have to travel precariously on the top as many impoverished Indians still do.
Ahmed was desperate. He pleaded with Sindhu to stay, but she said tearfully, “your family will never accept me”. He knew this was true. With breaking hearts they also knew that eloping was not a realistic option either. He had no job and had not even graduated and in the turmoil of Partition he could not support her.
Sindhu was not certain when her family would flee, but she told Ahmed, “one day soon I will not be working here and you will know I have gone”. Ahmed was frantic for her safety. He told her that fanatical Muslims in the district were stringing razor-sharp wires across the telegraph poles on either side of the railway lines. The hapless Hindu refugees travelling on top would be swept to their deaths or decapitated. “I will save you,” he said. “I will shine a light from the bridge and you will know it is OK.”
Ahmed stopped attending his university classes and watched every day for Sindhu to arrive for work in the field. One morning she told him, “I think we will be going tonight”. That afternoon she was gone and Ahmed knew that he had seen her for the last time. The train from their local station was due to leave for India after dark.
Ahmed knew where men were stringing the wires. It was a few miles from the station, just beyond a bridge which screened their lethal handiwork. After they had left the scene, Ahmed climbed up the telegraph pole. As soon as he heard the whistle of the train leaving the station, he cut the wires. He was risking his life, because if any of the fanatics had returned, they would certainly have killed him.
Ahmed didn’t know if Sindhu was on top of the train or inside it, but at least he had done his best to ensure that the passengers would reach India safely. As a matter of fact, Sindhu and her family did have to travel on top. It was terrifying — but then she saw Ahmed’s light flickering on the bridge. She knew then that he truly loved her.
That was not the end of Sindhu’s travails. After arriving in India she and her family had nowhere to go. They just stayed at a railway station, scrounging food from charitable persons or government instrumentalities. She became seriously malnourished, but eventually a Christian charity paid for her to recuperate at the YWCA in Simla. I lost touch with Sindhu after I left India in 1953. The last I heard, she was completing high school and her family had received some compensation for their lost fields.
Ahmed, I know that it broke your heart to let Sindhu go. But wherever you are, you can be proud of having saved your Hindu sweetheart and your Hindu neighbours.
Babette Francis was born in India and this remembrance is one she is writing from a collection on “The days of the Raj”.