A Pre-iPhone Memory of India

Every Diwali I think of that different time

Paul Greenberg


“Diwali Fireworks @ Golden Temple Amritsar” by gags9999 is licensed under CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/?ref=openverse.

Long before the iPhone made travel dull and predictable, sometime during the winter of 1987, I took a bed at the Sunny Guest House in New Delhi. The bed was on the roof under a layer of corrugated steel and my duffle bag served as a sleep sack in the unexpectedly cold December of Uttar Pradesh. Awaking early with not much to do but wait for my flight back to New York, I decided to walk over to the telegraph office and send a telegram to my friend Isaac in Trivandrum. Unlike me, Isaac had decided to stay in India for the full year. I’d lost my will and chosen to go back to the States early.

On the wall in most telegram offices in India at the time there was a list of the 25 or so most common telegrams. By requesting one from the list the sender could economize on price per word. A telegram typist need only send “15” which was immediately decoded to the receiver as “a warm congratulations on the day of your birth.” Standing in this line and reading from the list I thought I too would economize and send Isaac a standard telegram.

“I would like to send a ‘Number 6’ to my colleague in Trivandrum.” Number 6 would be decoded as “Id Mubarek.”

“Sir,” said the clerk, “I consider that greeting inappropriate for the present circumstances. The Ids will not fall until April. And, may I ask, is your friend a Muslim?”

I was embarrassed about how quickly I’d been found out. But I decided to proceed.

“Yes he is.”

“And what would his name be? “

“Mr. Isaac Rosen.”

The clerk looked at me suspiciously and paused before answering. “As I say, since it is not one of the Ids a Number 6 will only confuse the telegraph men at the other end of the line.”

“Perhaps then I will send a Number 8.” Number 8 was “Happy Diwali Greetings.” I knew very well it wasn’t Diwali. But we’d celebrated Diwali two months earlier at the palatial home of a college acquaintance upon our arrival in Bombay and I thought perhaps it might bring back for Isaac that already fading memory of our first days in India.

“Number 8 is also inappropriate,” The clerk replied. “Diwali has passed away long ago. In…



Paul Greenberg

New York Times bestselling author of Four Fish as well as The Climate Diet and Goodbye Phone, Hello World paulgreenberg.org