It is perhaps apt that Vishwanath Menon had to make a dash to the sole telegraph counter at the BSNL office in Kozhikode, seconds before it was to close, to send the last telegram from here.
A hastily jotted down ‘Goodbye’ addressed to his friend and a ‘Miss this service’ addressed to himself as a collector’s item brought the curtains down on the 163-year-old service.
“Ever since the advent of email and SMS, I have not used the telegram. But the news that it is coming to an end, made me want to keep one for posterity. I have a small collection of old greeting telegram covers with a simple picture of bell and a few telegrams. They were about to close the counter today and so did not have enough time to think and write,” says Mr. Menon, a retired government employee.
Nothing remarkable happened on the last day of the service, with only the odd visit from those hunting for a ‘collector’s item’ or youngsters who wanted to ‘experience’ the process at least once.
V. Geetha, Senior Operating Assistant, has been handling all the works related to telegram at this office for the past many years.
“When I joined the Post and telegraphs department more than 30 years back, there were at least 100 telegraphists and several other employees to handle the back-end operations. Over the years, the numbers were gradually trimmed and now I am the only one remaining,” says Ms. Geetha.
She says that the employees had to adapt themselves to changing technologies in every other decade, from Morse code to wireless to the current system using the internet.
“We were given an year long training in Morse codes. But after that we had to learn on the job whenever new changes were adopted. No other department has seen as many changes as have taken place in telegraphs,” she says.
Sivasankaran, a former telegraph operator who was shifted to BSNL’s customer care a few years back, says that his current work does not require the precision work that was needed in the telegraph department.
“We had to be dexterous in handing the Morse codes and if there was any error we were pulled up within minutes with messages like Leave Instrument Alone (LIA) or Call Telegraph Master (CTM). But even amidst all that frenetic activity through the day, we felt like it was our own service,” says Mr. Sivasankaran.
He says that many government institutions including the Defence Security Corps (DSC) in Kannur, the police department and some hospitals still make use of the telegrams.
“The DSC even in this last month used to send 300 telegrams per day. In earlier days, even the weather forecast was sent from the meteorology departments in various cities early in the morning addressed to the radio station. The telegraph distributors had to work round the clock,” he says.
Historian M.G.S Narayanan says that the telegraph was one of the factors which helped East India Company in suppressing the rebellion of 1857.
“The telegraph system was introduced in India a few years before 1857. With this system, whenever there was a local uprising the company could summon more forces from the main centres like Delhi. Tatya Tope has commented on this telegram factor of the riots,” says Mr. Narayanan.
By the end of the day, around 50 telegrams were sent from the counter here in Kozhikode.
All of them were short tributes or goodbye messages to the service itself, which in its heydays was ironically the harbinger of many a last goodbyes.