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Death of a messenger: telegram walks into history

As the last few days for telegrams approach, city's telegram operators go on a nostalgic trip as they prepare to send their last message on July 14. Manoj Sharma reports. ‘Death of distance’ kills the telegram | Last-minute rush as India stops telegram service

delhi Updated: Jul 14, 2013 22:19 IST
Manoj Sharma
Manoj Sharma
Hindustan Times
Telegram,Delhi oldest telegraph office,BSNL

These days, Baljit Singh, 59, has an additional duty, completely unrelated to his job profile of a telegram operator at one of the city’s oldest telegraph offices in the city at Kashmere Gate.

He has become a guide to the new kind of visitors to the museum that the telegraph office seems to have become. These visitors include college kids, children and their parents — all curious about how the telegram works and how to send one.

“They just want to send a telegram as a souvenir,” he says. He then falls silent, staring into space, and then like a world-worn man, takes off his spectacles to clean them.

A pensive expression takes over and in a tone of fatalistic resignation, says, "All of us here have been quite despondent ever since the message of the impending death of telegram was delivered to us two weeks back."

The message was a circular sent by the Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd (BSNL) that it would discontinue its 163-year-old telegraph service from July 15.

“This time, we messengers were at the receiving end of a debilitating message,” says Singh.

He and his 13 colleagues may be worried for their future, but pride and nostalgia is evident when they talk of their past when they were respectfully called ‘taar babu’.

People turned to them to deliver speedy messages to their near-and-dear ones. It was an age when no mobile phone existed; there weren’t fax machines or internet.

“The job of a telegram operator was much sought-after. And since the workload was stupendous, all of us worked over time, at times almost 24x7. We would earn three salaries in a month for working overtime and slept in the dormitory upstairs in this office,” says Singh.

And as telegraph operators he has sent and received crores of messages — of birthdays, condolences, marriages, notices, interviews, etc.

But one particular telegram has always stayed with Singh, one he wishes he had never received. It was his first day at work, and his very first message.

“Unfortunately, the message conveyed the death of a newly-married girl, who belonged to my village. It was from her father-in law. Till date, I haven’t told the girl’s family that I was the first one to know about the death of their daughter. It seemed to be the most inauspicious beginning of a career,” says Singh, sitting at his booking counter in the colonial building.

Tubelights and fans hang from its high ceiling. Singh’ desk has a telephone, a computer, a dot matrix printer, a sheaf of booking forms in a box. He worked on Morse code machines till mid-eighties and then graduated to teleprinters.

“Working on Morse Code machines, which worked in electric signals, required the skill of transcribing on-off sounds into words. We had to undergo nine months’ training,” says CP Singh, 58, his telegraphist colleague at the counter next to him.

In the Morse Code — in use till 1983 in telegraph offices in India — each character, a letter or numeral, is represented by a unique sequence of long and short beeps. A short beep is a dot; a long beep is a dash. One dot and one dash is the code for ‘A’, and one dash and three dots stand for ‘B’, explains CP Singh.

In fact, not many people might know that SOS , the internationally recognised distress signal does not stand for any specific words; they were chosen because they were easy to transmit in Morse Code: ‘S’ is three dots, and ‘O’ is three dashes.

All telegraph offices switched to teleprinters in the mid -1980s. And now they use WTMS (Web-based Telegraph Messaging System).

“It’s the mobile phone that killed the telegrams. It all started in the late 1990s,” says CP Singh ruefully.

Right in front of their counter, there is a banner on the wall with 44 kinds of standard messages. But Baljit Singh says very few people use these standard phrases.

“Mostly people write their own messages. At times we would get people, who wanted to send threatening and abusive telegrams,” says Baljit Singh. “And the intended recipients of these messages included top ministers and leaders. We had to take a call on what messages to send and which ones to withhold,” he says.

One of his colleagues added that government intelligence men were frequent visitors to telegraph offices and vetted the incoming wires.

Today, this telegraph office sends just about 50 telegrams in a day. Most of the incoming telegrams are from military men, regarding leave matters.

“These days, most individuals use a telegram as a documentary proof of the delivery of a communication. They are of great help in legal cases,” says CP Singh, who joined the department in 1979.

As we talk, Rohtas Singh , an outdoor messenger, joins the conversation. The first thing he tells us is that he is a messenger, not a postman.

“I deliver messages that are urgent. Unlike a postman, who only works during the day, we used to work 24x7. We often delivered messages in the dead of the night. People would be shell-shocked if I arrived late in the night, but I wasn’t always the harbinger of bad news,” says Rohatas Singh, adding, “Those days all businesses were conducted through telegrams. I used to deliver telegrams at corporate offices in and around Connaught Place”.

These days he delivers just 10-15 telegrams, unlike in the past when he delivered about 250. He had to prioritise every telegram — messages marked ‘XX’ meant the information of death and required a fast delivery.

Messages marked ‘OOO’ were top priority and signified important government communication.

“We had easy access to all important government establishments. I do not know what will become of me after the closure of telegraph services next month,” says Rohtas Singh, who joined the telegraph department in 1981.

In the past journalists too have used telegrams to send their stories to their respective newspapers.

Apart from the Kashmere Gate one, Delhi presently has three more telegraph offices — Central Telegraph Office at Janpath, and one each in Delhi Cantt and Janakpuri in west Delhi. Together, there are about 250 workers in all offices in Delhi and of them, 35 will retire next year.

Compared to the Kashmere Gate office, Central Telegraph Office in Eastern Court at Janpath, a grand white colonial building, is a busier place.

According to RD Ram, the chief telegram master, his office handled about 20, 000 incoming and outgoing telegrams every day in the 1980s.

The office still sends out about 250 telegrams and receives nearly 700 daily. “It shows that telegrams have still not become irrelevant. There is no reason to kill the messenger,” says Ram, showing us a thick sheaf of telegrams his office had received in the past few hours.

First Published: Jun 30, 2013 00:20 IST