Decoding messages

End of an era? Its time for the last telegram Photo: Rajanish Kakade   | Photo Credit: Rajanish Kakade

It was one of those rare occasions when the postmaster himself delivered the telegram. The messenger boy was not around, and K. Srinivasan cycled along a mud road in Swamimalai on a pitch-black night. He had an important message to convey to a villager — the death of a relative. Srinivasan knew that he will not be welcomed in the house. For, the people of Swamimalai knew that the sight of him with a paper in hand at night meant bad news.

With 36 years of service in the Department of Posts, Srinivasan has led an eventful life. He was among the very few in the department to be trained to become a telegraph ‘signaller’. Posted in various villages across Tamil Nadu, Srinivasan’s job was to receive and decode messages relayed using Morse code.

As the sub-postmaster in Swamimalai, Srinivasan literally lived inside the post office — his house was part of the post-office building; a wall separated his hall and office. The ‘kat-kada’ of the Morse key took over Srinivasan’s life. His ears were tuned to catch the sound even in his sleep. “I never slept soundly,” recalls the 84-year-old.

Code alert

When he lay down for a good night’s sleep after his duties for the day, the Morse key would ring out ‘kat kada kada katu…’ If the alert code relayed was for Swamimalai, Srinivasan would spring into action — he would decode the message and deliver it that instant if it was high-priority. Nightly messages always brought dire news. And such messages had to be delivered without delay.

His receivers sometimes vented their frustration on him when he brought them bad news. In the heat of the moment, some cursed and others wailed as he stood panting and sweating after cycling for kilometres. There are some telegrams that Srinivasan would never forget. One such is the happy news that his son Janakiraman secured a seat in Regional Engineering College, Trichy. Then there are those that haunt him. “He received the telegram of his brother’s death and broke down in the office,” recalls his wife Saraswathi.

Finger cramps after decoding over 200 telegrams a day, late night knocks on the door by angry mobs who wanted to send crucial messages… each day had its share of the unusual for the telegraph man. His job has seeped into his mind so deep that even years after retirement, he can recall the shortcut codes for various messages. “Five stood for ‘Happy Birthday’, 17 for ‘Wish you a happy and prosperous married life’, 21 for ‘Wishing the function every success’,” he says.

Memorable moments

As the only man in the post office at night, Srinivasan dealt with the most bizarre cases. To the horror of his wife, a much-feared gangster in the locality arrived at their door one night in blood-soaked clothes. He had been attacked with a knife and slouched in front of the counter asking for Srinivasan’s help to send an urgent telegram. Saraswathi was petrified. “He fell unconscious on the veranda saying ‘thanni…thanni’ (water).” Srinivasan rushed to his side with a chombu (small pot) of water. The man survived. From then on, he referred to Srinivasan as ‘thanni kudutha ayya’ (the man who offered water).

Srinivasan feels that if telegraph services are stopped, people in remote villages will suffer. “ Thanthi (telegram) has a lot of advantages. For a little over Rs. 3, you can send a greeting to your relatives,” he says. After all, nothing can replace the thrill of seeing something in print. One can preserve it for years, take it out once in a while and relive the moment.

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Printable version | Sep 14, 2021 2:11:06 AM |

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