When the last taar (telegram) is sent tomorrow, it will be an emotional moment for those who grew up with the telegraph and were witness to its heyday. To me, the telegraph office was more than a place where cables were sent and received; it was home. My parents were in the service of the Posts and Telegraphs Department (P&T), as it was called and my childhood was spent in residential quarters above telegraph offices in Bangalore, Bombay and Delhi, amid the relentless tapping of brass on brass punctuated by the thud of the date stamp in the Instrument Room (IRs).
As if to emphasise the fact that the telegraph was an “Essential Service”, the Central Telegraph Offices (CTOs) in the big cities were located in beautiful heritage buildings. The exteriors of some of them, including the stunning neo-Gothic structure at Flora Fountain in Mumbai, have been renovated and restored to their former glory. Others, languishing in neglect, now face an uncertain future.
Like the CTO building in my home town, Bangalore, adjacent to Cubbon Park and facing the memorial to the Unknown Soldier. The Metro is under construction here and I crane my neck for a glimpse of its familiar stone masonry over the tin-sheet barricades and the swirl of the traffic. The windows on the first floor, which once afforded a clear view of the top of Queen’s Road in the late 1960s, are now barely visible. As telegraphists in the early 1950s, my parents, Mary and Geoff, would pedal up the steep slope of Queen’s road to the CTO.
The brass Morse Key and the Dubern Sounder became the mainstay of our lives, enabling a good education and a comfortable life. My father never forgot this modest beginning. Years later, when, as Director of Telegraph Traffic, he was entrusted with overseeing the working of all the telegraph offices in the country, he proudly described himself as a “brass beater”.
The P&T was a level playing field and merit was the sole consideration for promotion. To climb to the next rung of the ladder, a telegraphist had to pass the All India Telegraph Masters’ Examination. Success could mean independent charge of one of the smaller telegraph offices in the country. In the mid-1950s, we moved from the quiet Jeremiah Street in the Bangalore Cantonment area to quarters adjacent to the CTO in Mattancherry, Fort Cochin.
In newly-independent India, it was exhilarating to be a cog, however small, in a communication system with the ability to send messages rapidly over great distances. The telegraph had an impact not only on government, trade and industry but, more importantly, on the lives of ordinary people. Across thousands of miles of urban India and remote parts of the country, khaki-clad postmen on bicycles delivered telegrams with tidings of births and deaths and other momentous events. Immortalised in countless Hindi films, the arrival of telegrams would inevitably set off extreme emotions, heightening the dramatic tension for the audience.
The pink telegram forms went out in two categories: Ordinary and Express; the latter being charged at twice the rate. Rates were halved in the off-peak hours from 9.00 p.m. to 6.00 a.m. There were also standard greeting telegrams, a boon to word-wary customers. These were sent out on forms embellished with a colour-strip of lotuses and bells, symbols rich in meaning for our pluralistic society. A list of set phrases — each with a number or “code” (the primary use of code being to economise on words) — was displayed at customer counters in CTOs. Diaries for the New Year invariably had a page devoted to these codes. The greeting message form has now become a collector’s item, I’m told; until recently it was for sale on e-Bay. Phonograms (telegrams booked and conveyed over the telephone from the sender’s end) and Telegraphic Money Orders (TMOs) reached faster than ordinary telegrams and money orders.
In time, the staccato sounds of the Morse code resonated in tandem with other internationally accepted codes. The chatter of the tele-printer, which typed out messages transmitted by telegraph on giant rolls of paper, and the international telegraphic message service known as Telex brought a new buzz to the Instrument Room in the 1960s.
Frequent transfers, coinciding with promotions, saw us shuttling between different parts of India. I recall the shock of alighting, as a child, at the Agra Cantonment Station at 4.00 a.m. on the coldest morning of my life. Agra was also memorable for the visits of Queen Elizabeth II and Jacqueline Kennedy, who came to see the Taj Mahal. We were delighted when my father received a letter of appreciation from the Queen along with an autographed colour picture of herself and the Duke of Edinburgh.
To keep pace with international practices, young officers were sent abroad under the Colombo Plan. In the late 1960s, the Colombo Plan-support from developed countries consisted of both transfer of technology as well as a skills development component. My father received an intensive training in Australia, where he toured the country for six months. Soon after his return, my first and only telegram from Purnima Tripathi, my classmate at Delhi University, was received at the Flora Fountain Telegraph Office. It paved the way for an interview at a leading Bombay College where I started my teaching career. We were then living on the second floor of the CTO building. The entrance to the Churchgate Railway Station was visible across a large ground through large brown windows. It was spacious enough to accommodate the guests at my wedding reception; the graceful archways of its two cavernous halls adorned with home-made decorations.
The trade unions had a lot of clout then and their strikes and “Go Slow” tactics called for sensitive handling. At such times, my father practically lived in the IR at the Bombay CTO, manning the machines alongside the operators.
At the CTO, New Delhi, housed in the iconic Eastern Court, there was always an air of anticipation. The visits of foreign dignitaries, mostly confined to New Delhi, meant that elaborate arrangements would have to be made to enable the press accompanying them to send news and pictures around the world. Eastern Court’s location, a stone’s throw from Parliament Street and the Dak Taar Bhavan (as headquarters was then called), kept the staff at the CTO on their toes. It also ensured that this beautiful building with its colonnaded floors and elegant arches was kept reasonably clean.
The declaration of a state of Emergency on June 26, 1975, saw two new telephones — red and green, with the old style rotary dials — installed in our home in New Delhi. We were never made privy to the reasons for this.
In 1980, the Department of Posts and Telegraphs was bifurcated and the Telegraphs merged with the Telecommunications Department. The 1970s and 1980s were golden years for the Telegraph Service with more than 100,000 telegrams a day being sent and received from the CTO at Eastern Court in New Delhi. At the same office, the number has now dwindled to an average of 200 a day. In an effort to boost plummeting revenues, the rates for telegrams were revised in May 2011. But this made little difference and the Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) was not prepared to sustain the staggering losses countrywide. From a profit of Rs.575 crore in 2008-09, BSNL has been reporting enormous losses for the last three years. In 2012-13, its losses reportedly stood at a staggering Rs.8,198 crore.
The once-thriving telegraph offices now wear a deserted look. Some, like the Bangalore and Mumbai offices with their well-maintained customer services counters, maintain a façade of respectability. But behind the cosmetic changes, in the heart of each, lies a different story — of empty desks and silent machines. Recruitment for telegraphists ground to a halt almost three decades ago. Their number is now estimated to be around 1000.
The time has come to say goodbye. With telegram nostalgia gripping the nation, eulogies have been coming thick and fast over the last few weeks.
Will the last few reminders of this era be suitably archived and preserved for posterity? Can we hope to see a commemorative postage stamp and a museum dedicated to a department that has served the nation so well these past 163 years?
There cannot be a more fitting tribute to all those brass beaters, past and present, than to have a corner of the beautiful heritage buildings that were once home to them, dedicated to the memory of the Indian Telegraphs.