Remember the telegram?

Jul 12, 2013, 09:03 IST | Hassan M Kamal

It's two days before the telegram bids adieu. Hassan M Kamal visits the Central Telegraph Office in Fort, to relive the charm of this now-outdated means of communication before it gets confined to history, forever

It was quite a shock for employees of the Central Telegraph Office in Fort when they first heard from the state-owned Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited about the closure of telegraph services on July 15. “Could it be true?” they asked each other, silently as they looked at each other in disbelief.

“No intimation, no discussion. Nothing. Just a plain stop,” recalls Senior Telegraph Master, CN Deshmukh. For him, it was like a death telegram. Curt and straight to the point. In his 38-year-career, he has cleared several death messages without batting an eyelid, but today, it feels different, and so does it for 300 of his colleagues at the CTO.

Senior Section Supervisor, Rajnath Pandey. Pics/ Hassan M Kamal

In these last days of the telegram, Deshmukh, 58, is very busy, an unlikely situation considering “no one uses the service”. But his desk is always filled with messages to be cleared for dispatch. “Time is very crucial in the operations room,” he explains, as he passes cleared messages to Telegraph Master MK Mali. At 52, Mali is the youngest employee of the CTO (Deshmukh is the oldest employee). “I was among the last to join the telegraph office,” he reveals. Recruitment stopped in the 1980s; last batch of CTO employees were accepted in 1984-85.

The last few weeks at the CTO has seen a surge in “last telegrams” sent to loved ones as a token, informing them of the death of the telegram. “It’s hard to believe, but everyone except us has accepted its death,” confides Senior Section Supervisor (Operations), Rajnath Pandey. “Why isn’t anyone saying anything?” he asks before returning to his pile of last telegrams.

Stage 1 The front desk

Check for errors
Senior Section Supervisor (Operations), Rajnath Pandey (in pic) checks every telegram application. He helps customers write a message in the shortest way possible, and makes the necessary corrections wherever required. He also fills the count of words, the amount to be paid and delivery CTO code. Each application is punched with this teller machine. A receipt is printed on a white paper.

Stage 2 In the Operators’ room

Class nomenclature
Messages that arrive from the front office are segregated here depending on their class of urgency. CTO offices across India use symbols like XX for death, XR for Indian Railways, XGM for greetings’ messages etc to convey the urgency of a message. Messages informing death get priority over job openings or greetings.

Web Connect
Telegraph Master, MK Mali (in pic), sends all telegrams to their destination locations through the state-owned Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited’s web message sharing portal. Duly filled forms are kept at a clipboard in front of the keyboard. Telegraph masters like him at the CTO also print telegrams that arrive for distribution within Fort’s jurisdiction on a dot matrix printer.

On the dotted line
For Senior Telegraph Master, CN Deshmukh (in pic) time matters most. From the moment he steps into the Operators’ Room, his only aim is to dispatch messages as quickly as possible. Here, he shows a newly arrived telegram. After a telegram arrives in the CTO’s web message inbox, it is printed on a white paper using a dot matrix printer. The message is left in a box, which is then collected by the in-house carriers (peons) and sent to the Delivery Room.

Stage 3 In the delivery room
Once crowded with CTO employees who worked non-stop to ensure a telegram is delivered as soon as possible, today the delivery room bears a deserted look.

While every other office at the Central Telegraph Office, Fort, has adapted to changing technology, the dispatch room at the CTO still bear its
old-world charm with most items as old as this telegraph office. A printed telegram is brought by the in-house carriers (right), after which each telegram is stamped and folded for dispatch. The in-house carriers also deliver departmental telegrams.

Stage 4 Ready for dispatch
Telegrams are arranged in these boxes, marked with a particular destination like Colaba, Mohammad Ali Road or Mantralaya. Telegrams are delivered to their respective addresses by messenger boys.  

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