As skeleton staff keeps vigil, a band of dedicated users continues to send telegrams

The few staff members who man the Central Telegraph Office (CTO) on Second Line Beach Road, Parrys, are suddenly busy booking telegrams of a different nature.

One such message was booked by a staff member over phone: ‘Dear Srini the telegraph office is closing down from July 15. I feel sad- Shanthi’. The CTO is the only place that offers the phonogram services in Chennai.

Even as the government has decided to suspend telegram and phonogram services from mid-July, the 129-year-old red building still receives customers who want to use the service, which is on its last legs, as often as possible. Seventy five-year-old S. Arumugam, a regular visitor, said: “I send telegrams to Madras High Court and government officials. I have booked telegrams for even Rs.3,000. I don’t know what I’ll do when the services are stopped.”

There was a time when the gates of the CTO were never closed and inside, the hallways resounded with hundreds of teleprinters at work round the clock. Now, the activity is confined to the ground floor of the three-storey heritage structure built in Indo-Saracenic style.

Administrative work is carried out in the first floor while the second and third floors have been unoccupied for years as the structure built in 1884 has not been repaired in decades. The number of staff has dwindled from 1,000 in the early 1990s to less than 150. Of them, only 30 are involved in booking telegrams. The CTO, which was once the hub for telegrams, has diversified into a telecom customer service centre.

Employees recall the CTO had a daily traffic of 1.25 lakh telegrams in the 1990s when the minimum charge was Rs.3.50. Everything from wedding greetings and interview calls to the weather forecast was sent via telegram. Newspapers used to call the CTO before closing edition.

“We now send and receive nearly 350 telegrams and phonograms daily. We rarely get telegrams with greeting or condolence messages. It’s mainly banks, finance companies, and advocates that make use of the service now,” said a staff member. Today, only three telegraph men deliver telegrams where 140 messengers used to work in seven shifts in the late 90s.

A messenger, who covered Kilpauk area, recalled the challenges he faced while delivering news to ‘banglas’(bungalow), especially during the night. “We had to collect recipients’ signature and it was particularly difficult if the news was tragic,” he said.

The museum at the Rajiv Gandhi Memorial Telecom Training Centre, Meenambakkam, has preserved the Morse Key and the Dubern Sounder, a relic from another era. Over time, the Morse Key and Sounder, also called Dubern Sounder, gave way to teleprinters. Now, telegrams are sent using a web-based Telegraph Message system.

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