When he opened the morning paper a month ago, octogenarian Panchapakesan did not expect to shed tears. He could not believe what he read- the telegraph service that had been his daily bread for almost six decades would cease to exist from July 15. “It came as a shock because the telegraph has saved my life; in fact it was my life. And I wept.”
Panchapakesan must be one of the oldest living telegraphists (persons employed to send and receive telegrams) - a breed that would soon fade into oblivion along with the telegram. Panchapakesan, who started out in 1953 as a divisional engineer(telegraphs) responsible for functioning of cables, became a telegraphist five years later. A bachelor, he lives on his pension in a small apartment in Tennur, since his retirement in 1991. When he stepped out, he was a telegraph master.
Panchapakesan has followed the chequered course of telegraph service - from its flourishing days to waning popularity, from being under the department of posts and telegraphs until it was bifurcated and brought under the telecommunications department; from an office that had 70 staff to less than a handful. “In 1958, the central telegraph office had 65 to 75 persons and more than half of them were women, most of them Anglo-Indians. They were all good-hearted and hardworking people.” Panchapakesan fondly recounts.
A muthurtham day meant the atmosphere was upbeat in the office, for though it spelt more work, it was a chance to earn more pai money - incentives for sending more than the prescribed number of telegrams, a day. “Usually around 200 telegrams were sent or received for the eight hours we worked. For every extra telegram we sent, we were given 10 paise. And the pai money was paid on the tenth of every month duly.”
“The women always used to make more than the men,” he grins. How come? “Oh, they never used to go out for a smoke or something every hour, like we used to do,” he chuckles.
Everyone received a larger share of the pie on ‘marriage days’ when 600 or more telegrams would be received. On occasions, telegraphists were deputed to weddings in the Chettinad belt. “The post offices in towns like Pallathur and Kandanur, had one postal signaller trained to receive messages. So an office with a telegraphist would be set up for two days, just for the wedding.”
When everyone was a messenger
Though there were about 35 telegraph men to deliver messages around the clock, occasionally telegraphists have donned the role of messengers. “There was an instance when an important message was received at a time, when no delivery men were around. Gopalachari, the telegraphist, rode his bicycle all the way to Thirpathurai to deliver the message. It was a time when everyone valued the dignity of labour.”
In another case it was the ingenuity of a telegraphist that put a family out of anxiety. “The Teppakulam telegraph office received a message from the Bhaba Atomic Research Centre, Mumbai, about a young man who had collapsed and died after an interview. The address mentioned was Fire Factory Road, Teppakulam and we were all baffled, wondering what it meant.” After much puzzling, Panchapakesan’s colleague Komala, in a moment of epiphany, said ‘Fire factory must mean Vaanapattirai Street!’ She also remembered that two days ago a young man had sent a message to the BARC confirming his arrival.
“We were able to trace the youth’s telegram. One of the messengers ran to the house a few streets away, and conveyed the news. It was only because of the individual interest of the team that we were able to alert an anxious family who were wondering why the boy didn’t return. This was in 1975, when there were few phones.”
The last telegram Panchapakesan remembers sending was for his brother’s death in 1992. Though he has not used it since then, he will mourn for the service that has sustained him. “We have wireless communication today, but when you think about it, what an intelligent invention the telegraph was - the idea of sending and deciphering messages through simple dots and dashes.”