THE TELEGRAM IS DEAD-(STOP)-LONG LIVE THE TELEGRAM
The death knell has been sounded for the telegram but some Calcuttans are clinging on to the service that started its India journey in this city more than 150 years ago.
At the Central Telegraph Office (CTO) in Dalhousie Square, Arun Kumar Roy, who mans the telegram counter, has enough customers to attend to on a Friday afternoon to say he’s busy. “Write your message on this form. The charge is Rs 28.10 for a maximum of 30 words; for every extra word, Re 1 plus 12 per cent tax,” he tells everyone with practised eloquence.
Regular users like Bishnupada Dutta do not need to be told. “I send four-five telegrams every year to our Pondicherry ashram,” says the man from Sri Aurobindo Institute, Ranikuthi. “They wire back their response. We do not trust email as it might escape their attention,” he says.
A reply-paid telegram from Andhra University checking his availability to be an external examiner has brought B.P. Chatterjee to the CTO. “I had gone to the CC Block post office in Salt Lake but was told that they had withdrawn the service long back. So I came here,” says the emeritus professor of West Bengal University of Technology, who had telegrammed home in 1976 to say that he had landed in Germany safely and again two years later to announce his daughter’s birth in Cologne.
“It was the quickest and most dependable means of communication then,” recalls Chatterjee.
Roy, who has been manning the telegram desk for 31 years, insists the service is still of use to some. “Since we issue a certified copy of the message, it can be used as legal evidence. So people who cannot appear in court on dates specified in the summons send telegrams to seek fresh dates. Military communication, including soliciting leave, are sent through us. Car finance companies too use our service a lot,” he points out.
Mahesh Agarwal of Laxmi Auto Service, near New Market, endorses the telegram’s relevance in the age of email and SMS. “When a customer defaults on EMIs after the second reminder, a telegram is sent to the defaulter’s local police station so that no FIR about theft is lodged for repossession of the car,” he explains.
The announcement about the telegram’s impending demise — the service will be put to rest on July 15 — has left him worried. “This means we will have to use registered post and send someone to the police station. Our costs will increase,” he says.
Roy and his colleagues feel the telegram might have survived had postal and telegraph services continued under the same department. “We used to have post offices where telegrams would be received. With the service coming under BSNL, we have had to run separate telegraph offices, most of which have shut down,” says an official.
Calcutta and the four adjoining districts together have had to make do with just 12, including the head office. Even a technology upgrade hasn’t helped.
Modern telegrams are transmitted to the telegraph office nearest to the recipient not through Morse machines or teleprinters but a web-based telegraph messaging system. Delivery is guaranteed within two hours but only within 8km of the CTO. “Otherwise, from the nearest point, we post it, paying full postage. It takes as much time to reach as a normal letter,” the official says.
In the halcyon days of the telegram, Roy was expected to transmit 30 messages an hour. “There would be about 100 of us on the ground floor, some booking messages from people, some sorting and stamping codes for delivery areas,” he recalls.
A pulley system would take bucketfuls of telegrams to the first floor of the CTO, where the teleprinters and Morse machines went tuk-tuk-tuk.
Morse machines were in use till the late Eighties, primarily because the smaller post offices still relied on them.
“Peons would collect messages sorted destination-wise to take to the designated teleprinter tables for transmission,” reminisces Shyamsundar Sharma, who handled phonograms (telegraph messages booked over phone) from 1985 till 2010.
He says the pressure on the 25 phonograph operators was so much that the superviser would holler if they took a minute extra for lunch. “Work pressure would increase ahead of Christmas, New Year and the wedding season.”
Today, Sharma sells BSNL SIM cards.
Messages about birth and success were a joy to transmit but there would be bizarre ones, too. “It wasn’t unusual to come across a telegram from a hospital wardmaster informing a patient’s family that he or she had fled. Or a message to an out-of-town husband declaring, “Tumhara aurat doosra mard leke bhag gayi (your wife has run away with another man)’,” chuckles P. Choudhury, another old hand.
The CTO was originally an appendage of the Red Cross Hospital (hence the address Red Cross Place). The entire building became a telegraph office on October 26, 1913, when the hospital was shut. A century later, it is here that the endgame is being played out with staff, equipment and space being inventoried.
On July 15, WCACCC, the destination code of Calcutta, will pass into history.
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