Those who’ve worked with this medium can’t help but feel a pang today

Enter the Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) head office near Queens Road and on the left, dumped behind a row of pots and shrubbery lies a faded yellow stone board, that reads ‘Bangalore Telegraph Office’. The utility’s new board in its trademark ink blue replaced it around four years ago when these offices were rechristened ‘customer service centres’, employees recall.

End of an era

But this morning’s newspapers brought news that, for thousands of BSNL employees — many of whom have done a stint or two with the telegraph department — marked the end of an era. The government’s announcement on shutting down BSNL’s telegraphic services wasn’t exactly a surprise. For, down the years, the number of telegrams had fallen drastically. The service, which once employed over 400, is now operated by a single worker.

However, even today, employees say, an average of 150 telegrams are sent out of this office, the sole centre in the city with the facility. An employee who has put in over 32 years recalls how in the 1990s the telegraphic services team would book anywhere between 25,000-30,000 telegrams a day. “It’s SMS that finally killed it,” sighed one, who permitted himself a bit of sentimentality when he heard the news. He showed the earliest Morse code machines that the department used, before moving on to the teleprinter, and then store-forward transmitters.

“In the late 1990s, these services started getting computerised; so, we moved to a web-based interface which made things much simpler. Earlier, we were scared of the computer…there was something too complicated about it till we attended the training sessions,” said Venkatrajan, a former BSNL employee. Today, even telegrams are sent over the World Wide Web, and then printed out and hand-delivered. The humble telegram now costs Rs. 30 for 30 words, with an added rupee for every additional word. Compared to the humble 50 paise SMS, where there’s no cap on word length, or email, the telegram is indeed one of the priciest forms of communication!

Political clienteele

So will the telegraph be missed at all, once it is given the royal burial on July 15? BSNL officers here say that a majority of the telegrams sent out today are booked by small financial firms, or court or lawyer offices. Interestingly, the only other loyal clientele it caters to – albeit periodic in nature – are politicians. Officials say that come elections and political party workers come with a 1,000 telegram orders sometimes. Even this year, during the Assembly elections, one employee recalls, they were flooded with telegram bookings.

No job cuts

The silver lining, of course, is that BSNL has already announced there will be no redundancies. “There’s no question of job cuts. All of us will be shifted to the customer service departments or web services,” said an employee who did a five-year stint as a telegraphic assistant in the 1980. What she missed most is the “job rush”.

“There was so much variety in my day. Some sad person would come to inform a relative about an illness; someone else about their wedding. And when it was good news, there would be nice conversations on a slow day. All this stopped happening through the 2000s, and then the only people coming were office boys or legal reps.”

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