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'Telegrams gave us our bread and identity'

Last updated on: July 14, 2013 14:34 IST

'Telegrams gave us our bread and identity'

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Memories of an era gone by are all that remains for telegraphists, considered the backbone of the historic 163-year-old telegram service, which bids its final adieu.

The state-run telecom firm BSNL has decided to discontinue telegrams following a huge shortfall in revenue.

"Sunday is the last day for telegram services. The service will start at 8 am and close by 9 pm," BSNL CMD R K Upadhyay said.

"The service will not be available from Monday."

Septuagenarian Gulshan Rai Vij, who retired in 1997 as a veteran telegraphist after serving almost four decades in a government job, recalls working in the "golden era of the telegram".

"Telegrams were notorious for bringing bad news, of war casualties and death from accidents. But, now it brings the news of its own demise. We have seen the peak of this service and worked in its golden era. New technology replaces the old, but telegrams gave us our bread and butter and our identity, so, indeed it feels sad to see it depart so unceremoniously," Vij said.

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Image: Kamla Devi, an employee who has served for 30 years, cries as she talks about her career, inside the Central Telegraph Office in New Delhi
Photographs: Mansi Thapliyal/Reuters

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The 75-year-old who joined the service in 1959 says he "maintained his composure" around the India-Pakistan war in 1971 and the turbulent days of the Emergency from 1975-77 as he continued to deliver messages, "not allowing himself to be emotionally involved".

"I was posted in Rohtak then. The 1971 war was when we worked round the clock without concern for food and water. Messages of war casualties would come from the defence headquarters and we would just keep punching away the news as fast as possible.

"As a telegraphist, one could not have gotten emotionally involved with the sad situation because there were thousands of messages to be delivered on time, and we did our job in the best possible capacity. We were all driven by a national spirit and it just powered us to work in such tough and testing times," he said.

For the world outside, a telegram operator's job might be the most mundane but only a telegraphist knows the joys and the challenges of working on the telegraph machine, which saw its avatar change from the early Morse Code era to the teleprinters and the current internet-based service.

"Despite matriculate with first class division being the minimum qualification criterion, only the sharpest minds were hired after a written test and a handwriting test. And, all telegraphists enjoy the sound of the 'dots and dashes' that translates into alphabets. For them, it's more like a symphony. I know it, because I have been a telegraphist myself," Gajendra Negi , a staff at the Central Telegraph Office said. 

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Image: A computer screen shows a telegram message inside the central Telegraph office in New Delhi
Photographs: Mansi Thapliyal/Reuters

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Vij, who also later served as the telegraph training instructor for years, said, "The sound of the Morse Code machine which is operated by a key and the tone of dots and dashes still ring in my head. Even today, I can recognise any alphabet if you play that machine. For others, it might be boring but for us, it was the most wonderful feel to operating those machines and connecting people with speed. Telegrams were the SMSs of today, short and swift."

The nostalgic sound of the machine has given way to a pall of gloom which has descended at the Central Telegraph Office (CTO), located at the Eastern Court premises here on Janpath where the staff who worked in the telegraph service "expressed displeasure at its discontinuance".

"A telegraph is must in a developing country. People in interior villages still need an inexpensive messaging service as private telephone companies don't want to go to there. For, banks and for the Army dedicated services are run, and even today for jawans on the border, application for holidays is done through telegrams only. And, legally, the court accepts telegrams as certified proofs. Why would you want to discontinue this noble service then," asks M S Arya, a veteran at the CTO.

Despite all the hardships, telegraphists recalled the services rendered, with pride and expressed sadness at hearing the end of a legacy.

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Image: Messenger Om Dutt, 56, leaves the Central Telegraph Office to deliver telegrams in New Delhi
Photographs: Mansi Thapliyal/Reuters

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'Telegrams gave us our bread and identity'

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For Krishna Kumar Yadav, an award-winning telegraphist at the CTO, who retires in 2015, the day of January 25, 2002 still brings memories of "learning the importance of his job" and "finding his own strength".

"It was the noon of January 25, and I started sending telegrams and kept sending until I realised it was 7 am in the morning when l left my post. In those 19 hours, I sent 5,875 telegrams which is still a record. For this service I was awarded the 'Sanchar Seva Padak'", Yadav said.

Though telegrams mostly meant bad news, there were also 'Greetings Telegrams' which came with a printed message of the nature of its content. And, then there were 'Phonograms' too which were booked through telephones.

"People would ask for phrases like 'Many Many happy Returns of the Day' or 'Happy Anniversary' and there were codes to choose these phrases and one then paid accordingly.

In phonograms, one booked a trunk call and then after confirmation the telegram would be delivered and the bill would either be attached with the phone bill or be sent separately later by mail," Vij said.

Railways also provided facilities for people to book tickets through telegrams from the station.

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Image: Surjeet Kaur, 77, displays a telegram which was sent by her husband on her birthday in 1955, inside her house in New Delhi
Photographs: Mansi Thapliyal/Reuters

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"I have used it. One would go to a telegram office at a station and ask for a ticket booking from a different station. The telegram would be sent to the corresponding station and the passenger would carry a slip which he would show at the telegram office at the other station to collect the ticket," Abbas, who worked earlier as a locomotive driver, said.

The first experimental electric telegraph line was started between Calcutta (now Kolkata) and Diamond Harbour in 1850 and was opened for use by the British East India Company the following year.

In 1854, the service was made available to the public.

There are about 75 telegram centres in the country, with less than 1,000 employees to manage them.

BSNL will absorb these employees and deploy them to manage mobile services, landline telephony and broadband services.

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Image: An employee uses glue as he prepares telegrams to be sent at the Central Telegraph Office in New Delhi
Photographs: Mansi Thapliyal/Reuters

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