Hundreds throng BSNL office on Queen’s Road to send their final, and in many cases first, telegram

All those who gathered here at the BSNL headquarters, on Sunday, to send their last — and for most their first — telegram were seen, their heads bent over small scraps of paper, making draft notes to find that perfect combination of words. Some tried their hand at wit, working around the many “mother sick. Start immediately” clichés; while others tapped into their emotions and poured their heart out into the telegram that marks the end of an era.

1,300 telegrams sent

Starting early Sunday morning, the BSNL office on Queen’s Road, the only centre in the city where telegrams can still be booked, saw a steady flow of customers. The queue grew longer as the day proceeded, and by late evening officials saw that the crowds showed no signs of abating. Partly out of “sentimental reasons” and partly to “keep customers happy”, officials at the State-owned office decided to extend the booking process by at least a few hours. It wasn’t until well past 9 p.m. that the queues made way for the shutters to be downed on the 163-year-old service. By the end of the day a whopping 1,300 telegrams, including 133 orders taken on the phonogram service, had been booked (compared to an average of 150 that are booked on a daily basis).

That this Sunday was special was evident. As this reporter entered the building, which was hitherto called the Central Telegraph Office, the guard, all smiles: “Telegram-a?” When asked how he’d guessed, he laughs: “People have been queuing up since morning. The counter officers are yet to take a break.”

But no one’s complaining. They’re taking it in their stride, after all, it’s the last time that these telegram slips will be filled, words counted, and content entered into the web-based telegram system.

Srinivas, who’s worked as a telegraphist here all his life, says he’s been working non-stop entering telegram matter into the computer. When asked if he’ll miss this, he chuckles almost apologetically, “a little bit”. He points to the huge stack of telegram slips on his table and reminds himself that all these people are only coming for “nostalgic value.” “It wasn’t like it was being used, except for some legal or financial services that continued to send messages.”

Their last telegram

It’s important how we word this last telegram, says 63-year-old Subbaiah, a former secretariat employee who’s in queue with three of his old friends.

They’re busy discussing the nitty-gritty, and every now and then their conversation meanders into the past, recalling all the important and “life-changing” telegrams that they’d sent and received. His friend Raman Iyer (68) tells him that it would be witty to frame the message thus: “regret to inform you about the demise of the telegram”. There are loud guffaws in the group. When they’re asked if they regret the “demise”, Mr. Subbaiah shrugs, “It was bound to happen.”

Old timers are actually far outnumbered by the young crowd that’s keen on carving for themselves a slice of this history. Vandana V, a Goldman Sachs employee, and her husband Venkatanathan H., who works at Congnizant, are sending each other telegrams.

“This is the first and the last telegram for us. It’s the end of an era,” says Ms. Vandana, all excited. They’re sending their parents, who also live with them, a few messages. She adds that obviously they’re not as excited “because they’ve seen it all before.”

And if life’s a race, there’s always a few who crave the last spot. Not really, except in this case, it holds true. For as 6 p.m. approached there were many who made a beeline to the office to book themselves the last spot. Sadly, as a young nurse, Bibin Babu, pointed out, it had been pre-booked the day the closure was announced.