The story was told over and over again to all new employees who joined the Telegraph department, says Louis Pereira who worked with the Central Telegraph Office (CTO) Pune for 42 years. Dressed in a crisp white shirt and a golf cap,Pereira sits wistfully as his old friends and colleagues gather to bid farewell to one of the most disciplined departments in the government service.
The story goes that before the great and mighty Titanic sank on April 14,1912,the staff up there was actually warned of the potential danger of the Atlantic iceberg. Travelling ahead of them,the smaller ship encountered several large icebergs,and used the Titanics larger radio antennae to relay the message to the ground station at Cape Race,Newfoundland,through a telegram. But due to some misunderstanding,or delay,the message was ignored or overlooked. Thats why,my boss used to tell us,Every telegram is important; if ignored,mighty ships can sink, says Pereira solemnly. The small staff canteen at the CTO wore a happy,yet nostalgic mood on Monday evening. With a crowd pouring into a moderately-sized common area,the old and new staff greeted each other with the familiarity of a large,happy family. M J Deshpande,who worked in the Telegraph department in the late 1950s,says,My job was to keep records of the telegrams received and delivered,per hour. At the end of the day,I had to get my boss sign on the compiled reports of the day. Our department was one of the most organised in government service, says Deshpande,who retired from active service in 1997.
Indias telegram service began in 1850,when the first telegram was sent from the eastern city of Kolkata to Diamond Harbor,a southern suburb nearly 25 miles from the city centre. From birth and death announcements,to college admissions,job appointments and court summons,the telegram was the harbinger of news to millions of Indians. Over the next few decades,telegraph offices proliferated,wiring India with a network that became known for its speed and dependability.
Many of the old staffers had curious,funny and sad incidents to relate about the kind of telegrams they sent out. One of the older member of the staff reminds the rest about a funny anecdote from famous Marathi humorist P L Deshpandes story Maze Poushtik Jeevan (the title is a word-play on the word post,colloquially pronounced as poshta). The story describes a telegram message,supposed to be sent as,Joshis marriage fixed with Limayes daughter was instead delivered as,Joshis garage mixed with lemon water.
James Rao,72,who worked with the Telegraph department for over 40 years says such mistakes happened,though rarely. There have been times when a message supposed to be sent to Belgium was delivered in Belgaum, he says with a laugh. He adds that was a problem faced during the time where similar-sounding words were sent through Morse codes.
Until recently,the government used telegrams to inform recipients of top civilian awards and for court notices. Indias armed forces even recognised telegrams from troops extending vacations or from soldiers families requesting their presence at home for a funeral. K V Adhari,who worked as a telegram messenger for over 20 years,says that messages from the higher courts in Delhi and Mumbai regarding the death penalty for prisoners at Yerawada were also sent by telegrams. There were telephones,of course,but a telegram was the official thing. I have cycled from CTO in Camp to Yerawada jail to deliver the messages, he says with a smile.
The programme ended with nostalgic anecdotes about the good old days and messages about embracing new technology. The CTO staff,especially the senior,retired ones,plan to stay in touch and celebrate July 15 every year,as an ode to the golden era in Indian communication.