Mumbai: A.V. Deshmuk has a lot of time on his hands.
A telegraphist at Mumbai’s central telegraph office, his job is not as hectic as it used to be. Once touted as filling the common man’s instant communication needs, telegrams can be described as the original text message. But the telegram has fallen into disfavour, rendered obsolete by more reliable landlines, mobile phones, email and text messages. Now, the Indian telegram is in its death throes.
The first telegrams in India were sent in 1850 between Kolkata and Diamond Harbour, West Bengal, with the government opening up the service to the nation in 1855. At the peak there were 25 telegraph offices in Mumbai; now there are eight. Of those, only the central office sees any activity, said chief telegraphist Ashok Gajbhiye. He said that 80% of countries worldwide have closed their telegraph services.
Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd (BSNL), which took over the telegraph system in 1994, acknowledges on its website that “there has been steep decline in the usage of telegraph services” of late.
When he joined the telegraph office, Deshmuk trained for nine months using Morse code and teleprinters, sending messages transmitted by underground and undersea cables. In 1982, Sam Pitroda, the first chairman of India’s Telecom Commission, was brought in to modernize the system, an event Deshmuk remembers fondly.
Dying medium: Telegraphist A.V. Deshmuk at the central telegraph office in Mumbai.Photograph by Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
“In those days, a telephone was a luxury. It could take up to 10 years to get a connection,” Pitroda said. Being in India’s business hub, Mumbai’s central office was the busiest in the country, he said. “Now, there’s no reason for it to exist. It’s one of those things that has to die. It’s sad, but it happens.”
“Everyone depended on this system,” said Deshmuk, who wore a pink Oxford shirt and glasses with smart frames. “Now, day by day, the (number of) telegram(s) decreases.” He estimates that the frequency with which telegrams are sent has dropped 90% since he joined the telegraph office.
Today’s telegrams are little more than emails by another name. Last year, BSNL finished converting the countrywide system to a “Web-based telegraph messaging system”. Now, when someone books a telegram, it’s transcribed and sent by email to a server in Thiruvananthapuram, from which is it rerouted to the relevant regional office, where it’s transcribed and hand-delivered.
On a recent visit by Mint, Mumbai’s central telegraph office was bereft of customers. A dozen clerks were on hand to service three people, each of whom had queries about their BSNL phone service. (One can also send a fax or surf the Internet on a lone computer terminal.)
When Deshmuk started work, sending a telegram cost upwards of Rs 3.50. Now, it costs upwards of Rs 30.
Early in his tenure, Deshmuk said, people would use the service to prearrange a time for a conversation on a public landline, or send news of a death, birthday or marriage. Indeed, discounted, pre-written greetings are still available for everything from the very specific (“Heartiest Ugadi greetings”) to the very general (“Wishing the function every success”).
Deshmuk estimates that during the telegram’s heyday, some 4,000-5,000 passed through his office every day, and over 100,000 went through the wires in Maharashtra.
The office used to be open 24 hours, he said. “Since last year, it is open only from 8am to 8pm. It was all shift duties back then. You had a quota, maybe 30, 40, 50 telegrams per hour. Now it is (much) less,” he added.
Previously, there were 800 telegraphists in the central office. There are 80 now, he said.
These days, telegrams are largely sent as official communiques. “They are sent by banks to defaulters or by the government for legal purposes,” Deshmuk said. “When banks decide that people have defaulted, or when the rent comes due, we get very busy. We could get 4,000-5,000 bookings. (But) when those bookings will come, nobody knows.” Most other days are quiet, he said.
During Mint’s visit, a lone telegram sat in the telegraphists’ outbox. From an employer to an absconder, the message read: “Report on duty immediately with written explanation.”
When Mint sent a telegram to its office, the Internet was down, so it was hand-typed and dispatched by messenger.
“This telegram service is going to die within five to ten years,” Deshmuk said. “Very rarely do people approach us any more. Internet and mobile phones are instant. An express telegram takes half an hour.” (Mint’s local telegram took 24 hours to reach.)
“Previously, it was a great service,” Deshmuk said. “Now, the telegraph is like the bullock cart when it was replaced by the train or the bus.”
Still, he allowed himself to get wistful about the telegram. “If you send a message by your hand to the village, when it was received at the house, your words are there,” he said. “The telegram is like a letter. It’s from your heart. SMS and email are faster, but human relations belong to the telegram. Emotions belong to the telegram.”