The last telegrams sent from the city on Sunday night, carried messages of hope. One contained a song from the Beatles, sent by 25-year old Madan Gopal to his girlfriend at 7.56 p.m. The other was a message from advocate A.P. Veerappan to Chief Minster Jayalalithaa, at 11.04 p.m., officials said.
As the last of the crowds left the Central Telegram Office (CTO) on Second Line Beach Road just past 8 p.m., the keyboards turned silent and shutters were downed both on the 163-year-old telegraph service as well as the booking counter housed in the heritage building.
With the rise of techonology and faster means of communication, this once-crucial service has now become an anachronism.
On any other Sunday at CTO, there would only be a skeletal staff to handle the dwindling number of telegrams sent over the years. But on Sunday, many employees worked not just so there would be extra hands to deal with the crowds expected on the last day, but also to bid farewell to a service they have been providing for decades.
The combination of dots and dashes, also referred to as ‘kada and kattu’ based on the sound the message generates, has been used by everyone from the highest authority in the government, to the common man wanting to announce the birth of a child.
But on Sunday evening, the telegrams sent were mostly souvenirs, to mark the end of a long, cherished era.
At the Telecom Customer Service Centre on Ethiraj Salai, the crowds at the counter swelled well into the evening, with enthusiasts wanting to shoot off a message one more time. Employees there were hard-pressed to handle the long queues.
“The number of customers crossed 700 today. Instead of four, there were 10 of us on the job. Since so many people queued up, we allowed only those who had come in before the official closing time to send telegrams,” an official said.
An employee who has put in close to 30 years of service said that some people even sent advanced greetings for Deepavali and birthdays because the service is going to end.
For the staff members, it may be the end of a job they have been doing for decades, but their passion for the service still runs high.
“We feel very sad. Before the service ends, I am going to give it a personal goodbye by sending a telegram to my son at home to remind him that this service is what fed us all these years,” he said. Another staff member said that it felt like an elderly person in the home has passed away.
A telegraphist recalled how, just through the rhythm, the clickety-clack, the person at the other end would know who was sending the message.
“I could type up to 60 telegrams in an hour. Of late, personal messages have been extremely rare. I am retiring in October, but the service has retired before me,” he said.
In the 1980s, the service began using the electro-mechanical teleprinter, which had a QWERTY keyboard. This was later upgraded to a web-based system.
Today ‘WRU’ (where are you) may be used in text messaging, but the same three letters were used a long time ago to confirm if the telegram had reached the right centre. The other centre would respond using the ‘here is’ key, according to information from the Rajiv Gandhi Memorial Telecom Training Centre.
At the CTO, S. Raman, an IT professional was one of those waiting in line. People had come from as far as Perangalathur and Pozhichalur to send telegrams.
“I sent a telegram to my uncle in 1994 conveying my grandfather’s demise. After 1994, this is the first time I am sending a telegram. I’ve sent it to my father thanking him for being my teacher. I could have sent it by SMS. But this, he can preserve,” Raman said.
Bruce Robson, whose father worked and retired as a telegraphist at the CTO had come there to commemorate the “poignant moment”.
“This office is very familiar to me. It is not just Indian history but also family history,” he said. One of the messages he sent was to his mother reading, “Last day, last service. Sent from Dad’s office.”
A. Mundro, who delivers the telegrams, said that he had been at the job for 32 years. He has braved snakes, been bitten by a dog, rung the wrong doorbell in the middle of the night, waded through water and received goodwill when he carried happy news.
“Right from the weather to the price of the vegetables at Kothwal Chavadi market, it is the telegram which carried crucial piece of information. Unlike a postman we cannot drop a letter into a post box and leave it at that. When we carried a message of death, people would forget to sign the receipt in their grief. I have been wearing black for the past three days to mourn the ending of the telegraph service,” he said.
Over the next two days, for the last time ever, Mundro will get on to his two-wheeler to deliver telegrams.