July 13 will be the last day that the telegram service will be available in India. As we bid adieu to an era of communication, some of the employees of BSNL’s telegraph department in Bangalore take Bhumika K. on a personal trip down memory lane.
Katta katta, kada katta, kada kada…it’s not a language we will understand easily. But, for most employees of the country’s telegraph department, it comes as easily as their mother-tongue. It’s the sound of the language of Morse Code, the secret code of telegrams that only the trained knew. “Of course I remember it… it’s like learning cycling or swimming. You never forget it for life,” says an employee at the BSNL’s telegraph office in Bangalore, with pride.
While telegraph department employees won’t forget this service so entwined with their life, we have been quick to bury this 160-year-old telegram service, with faster means of connectivity entering our lives. Having been perceived as obsolete and loss-making in an age of mobile phones and the Internet have taken away the urgency of communication that was once the privy of telegrams, it makes a nostalgic exit.
Morse Code, the romantic language of telegrams, was in use in the country up to 1990. The “sounder” in the mechanism would strike the same sound at the other end as was created at the telegram-sending end. The person had to hear with concentration and decode the message. There were codes for alphabets, numerals and punctuation.
All the employees currently in Bangalore’s telegraph department, have been trained in Morse Code, because most started their service before they were 25, when the code was still in use. They were trained first through an eight-month English Morse and tele-printing course. The rigorous training lasted seven hours a day for eight months. Then came a four-month stint of Hindi Morse training. There were two Telegraph Training Centres in Karnataka — at Mysore and at Hubli.
“When we entered service, most employees were Anglo-Indians; some British officials who were in the British service were also there till they retired. It was a job of great discipline. A small mistake and we would get a memo,” recalls another employee. Knowledge of English was mandatory, as also a good handwriting. “Because we would hand-write the message we received, and deliver it!”
Talking of the regular users of the telegram, apart from the layman who often used it to send messages of birth or death, an employee directs his attention at newspapers. “We worked on a telex system on a dial up circuit. Each newspaper press had a separate number. We would get weather and rainfall reports, and prices of commodities from the district correspondents… even important event reports from the taluks. The department would be invited to set up a ‘camp office’ on location when there was a political meeting like the AICC sessions, or cricket matches, billiards or golf tournaments, so that reporters could transmit their reports from the spot.”
But the telegram was a highly regarded means of communication because it was a government channel “If one sent a telegram, it was an authentic record,” points out an officer who’s been with the department for 30 years. “Private loan companies that lend out money and are unable to get repayment, seize owner’s vehicles, and send a telegram to the police! That’s also for authentication. Court stay orders are sent as telegrams. It’s a government channel.”
While most of us associate the department of posts and telegraph together, in 1986, the department split, and telegrams went over to the department of telecommunications, which later became BSNL.
From the more mechanical devices used to send out telegrams, the country slowly progressed towards electronic variations. “We would work 24 hours,” recalls a veteran at the department. An average employee was able to send 30 to 100 messages per hour. “Pressure was a big factor in our lives,” he says! Gradually, with a widespread telephone network in the country, the department started offering a phone-o-gram service where you could place a telegram over the phone from your home if you had a BSNL landline; it was charged to your phone bill. When computers came into the picture, the Web Based Telegraph Message Switching System came, and is the system currently in use. To the taluks without Internet access, it goes by teleprinter.
It’s not like telegrams went kaput the moment mobiles and the Internet spread their wings. This “official channel” status that telegrams commanded meant that when MLAs from all over the state need to be called in for a meeting or special assembly session, it was the telegram that was dashed off. “Why, even after the recent 2013 state assembly election in Karnataka, we sent out 224 telegrams to the MLAs.” The Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation (KSRTC) in their recent recruitment drive in 2013 also sent out 2,000 telegrams. The Indian Army regularly uses the telegram service to send messages on recruitment, leave — whether it’s granted or not granted — and other such purposes, to “record” it. And for the Army, the payment is collected from the Army headquarters in Calcutta!
Some employees nostalgically point out: “We should have retained the service. It’s a public need. The postcard is priced at 50 paisa and the government incurs a loss on it. Yet the postcard remains in use because it’s an obligation and service to society. The telegram service should also be retained as a service to people of the country.”
Ever since the Indian Government announced that the telegram service in India will breathe its last on July 15, there has been furious activity in the department. The desire to send that one last keepsake telegram is on. Specially ones where nostalgic parents have sent it to Gen Y saying: “This may be the first telegram you receive, and the last. I hope you keep it as a memory of an era gone by. You may never understand its real meaning, you have no idea how it feels to receive one…”