Once the harbingers of news, they now serve as gatekeepers
While the 163-year-old telegraph system finally called it a day in July, its memory has acquired a life of its own, preserved and shared by its messengers, who now work as gatekeepers and clerks at BSNL office in Fort
While the telegram stepped out of its somnolent Fort office and entered into the annals of history in July this year, its memory has acquired a life of its own, and is carried around by a special group of men who devoted many decades of their lives to delivering the short, succinct messages to families across the city.
They are the messengers - of good news and bad - who now live more sedate lives as gatekeepers and clerical staff for the Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) office. Four months after the service shut down, MiD DAY paid a visit to the erstwhile Central Telegram Office (CTO) in Fort, which is now a full-fledged BSNL office. A last vestige of the once-indispensable mode of communication can still be spotted on the huge signboard at the entrance that says ‘Central Telegraph Office (CTO)’.
R K Balmiki, who spent over three decades of his life delivering telegrams to Cuffe Parade, Churchgate, Carnac Bunder and Mantralaya, attributes his physical fitness to all the running around that his job involved. He said, “Now my job is to mark the attendance of the messengers who have turned into clerical staff and gatemen.
There was a unique thrill in that job, where all sorts of news - whether it be happy or sad - was delivered by us to people at their doorstep. Since I delivered telegrams to Mantralaya, I used to be good friends with personal secretaries of most of the state ministers then. Now I get bored sitting in one place.” Balmiki says he is happy he is retiring in June next year.
The messengers weren’t just harbingers of personal, familial news, but storehouses of trivia about the areas in which they operated. Rajaram Renose, chief section supervisor for BSNL, said that there was a time when telegram messengers used to be the most ‘pakka khabris’ for the chief police officers in Mumbai. “I delivered telegrams for a brief period and in that time every road in this area got permanently etched in my mind.
I knew which faces I would find exactly where - be it a shopkeeper’s or an urchin’s. Probably that was why the police trusted us completely.” SP Jadhav, who now works as a phone mechanic, recounted how a chief CID officer once came to his home at 1 am in the night, asking him to come along with him and identify the house of a goon. The next morning, he learnt that the gangster had been arrested.
Mohan J Rathod (47), who now sits at the gate of the BSNL office - rued that his new job hardly requires him to do anything but sit at the door and look on at those entering and exiting the office. As long as the salary keeps coming in, it’s enough, he shrugged. The telegram messengers have many stories to tell, and they have put them all together in a book, in which they have also enclosed images of the first, and the last few telegrams to be dispatched. They readily give a photocopy of their assemblage to anyone who asks for one.
They still remember the telegram codes like the back of their hand. Nagest Sawant said, “The telegram would have a six digit code given to it depending on the place it was to be delivered. For example, MBYBCA was the code given to a telegram to be delivered to Byculla, and MBYANA for Andheri. Even now, we can rattle off all the telegram codes at a moment’s notice.” Vaishali Kardekar, PRO at the BSNL office, said, “We have tried our best to fit in the telegraph office staff somewhere or the other. A lot of them have even been transferred to places in our Western Telecom Region.”
Water activist Amla Ruia speaks to mid-day