Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91

Vol. XXVII No. 12, October 1-15, 2017

Requiem for the Telegram

by Bruce Robson

Requiem for the telegram
“E-I-S-H-5,” he called out gently and even though his voice was quietly cajoling, my five-year-old brain, not yet used to the English alphabet, struggled to grasp the new order of those letters.

He went on to explain, “E is 1 dot, I is 2 dots, S is 3 dots, H is 4 dots and the numeral 5 is 5 dots. Similarly, T, M, O is 1 dash, 2 dashes, and 3 dashes respectively.” He went on to tell me that the international distress signal ‘SOS’ was transmitted quite simply and easily on this basis as: dot dot dot / dash dash dash / dot dot dot / or in other words, you spelled out each letter in Morse code. My eyes opened in child-like wonder as it all began to fall into place. ‘It’s all so simple,’ I thought, and it increased my yearning to learn more because I had the best teacher in the world – my very own Dad.

Dad (known as ‘Robby’ in the office) was employed in Madras in the P&T Department of the Central Government – short for Post and Telegraph Department, of which the Telegraph section countrywide, became sadly defunct in 2013.

There is a good chance, however, that if any of us has ever sent or received a telegram at all, that at some time in its life it could have passed through the hands of my Dad or any one of the other Anglo-Indian men or women who once served the P&T Department all over the country, especially in the South. The P&T Department was an Anglo-Indian bastion, though seldom talked about. Since the earlier nature of their work required them to ‘tap out’ words, P&T employees were often ribbed as ‘Brass Tappers’.

My lessons in long distance communication began at five when Dad said, “Son, before the teleprinter arrived, long distance communications were sent and received in Morse code and we operators had to be no less than perfect to correctly encode or decode and transcribe the message that had to be transmitted or received.”

Through the years I learned more from Dad. “After the teleprinter was introduced as the advanced technology of the day,” he explained, “it made work a little easier. We teleprinter operators (called Telegraphists or TLs) sat in a large hall called the Instrument Room (or IR) at individual desks and worked behind the scenes. On our desks there were teleprinter machines that were connected to another city via an electronic link. Every day we sent or received a stack of telegrams destined for or from that city from that particular machine.”

To send a telegram, you went to the nearest local Post Office and booked (wrote) a telegram to a person in, for example, Calcutta. It was then sent from that local Post Office to the Central Telegraph Office (CTO for short) for final transmission. (The CTO was housed in that colonial style red-brick building on 1st Line Beach, opposite Madras Beach station on the suburban rail line.) It was then put into a pile of telegrams for Calcutta and given to the TL working the Calcutta line.

Dad revealed to me how a telegram was sent. The TL then transmitted it by typing the text of the message on his machine. The typed matter appeared simultaneously only on the Calcutta TL’s machine and it emerged in Calcutta on a ribbon of paper from a spool fed into the machine. A code signified to the TL the beginning and end of a message on the ribbon, which was broken off and ‘gummed’ on a special form. This form was then sent off for despatch via the channel that kept track of ‘sent’ and ‘received’ telegrams. In the same way the Calcutta operator sent his messages to the Madras TL who did the same thing. “The wonder,” Dad said, “is that messages could be transmitted simultaneously and continuously from either end until all messages for a particular city were sent or received.”

Most of us who have had the opportunity to receive a telegram will remember the pink form on which two or three strips of white paper tape conveyed the urgent message.

Dad said that most people did not give a thought at that time to the ones who worked to keep communications going in the country through the telegram. “Many of us at the P&T Department were Anglo-Indians and we filled important centres in almost all cities, especially in the South. News was conveyed by us from one location to another on a teleprinter. The matter transmitted consisted of information regarding births and deaths, arrivals and departures, congratulatory messages, weather reports, news despatches – you name it and it was sent as a telegram.”

We the Robsons lived in St. Thomas Mount and Dad went to work to the north of the city by train. There were many Anglo-Indians working in the Department and they came from other Anglo-Indian localities in Madras – Kasimode, Royapuram, Vepery, Purasawalkam and Pallavaram. They all met at the office where shifts were referred to on the 24-hour clock. Everyone knew what 6 to 14, 7 to 15, 10 to 18, 14 to 22 or First Watch meant. Unlike Railway men, the P&T staff did not travel anywhere, yet they traversed the country while just sitting at a desk. Sunday was the usual day off since most of the TLs were Christians. Almost everyone saved their annual leave for Christmas time.

Three payments were made to staff every month. ‘Salary’ was always paid on the first working day of the month.

‘Pie-Money’, a slang term adapted from the erstwhile Rupee, Anna and Pie monetary units, but translated as ‘Incentive’ in a more formal way, was paid on the 11th and this was calculated pro-rata on the basis of the extra messages sent beyond the required minimum of 240 messages per term of duty. There were some TLs who could send over 400 messages on each spell of duty, depending on the ‘traffic’ and his or her skill. ‘Overtime’ was paid between the 18th and 22nd of the month and was for the extra hours put in beyond regular working hours. These payments, which were spaced out during the month, brought in the extra money to keep the home fires burning.

“We shared a rare kind of bonhomie that came from working long dedicated hours together, speaking a universal language in versions unique to the Anglo-Indians, and in an environment that brought us together by bonds that were common to almost all of us. We helped each other financially and emotionally, shared troubles, bereavements and grief, visited the sick and lent many a shoulder to cry on,” Dad would recall. Everyone knew the spouses of their colleagues and on the occasions when they met as families, such as on Telegraph Thanksgiving Day, Telegraph Sports Day, and the Telegraph Christmas Tree, or on Christmas shopping trips to ‘Moore Market’ it was sheer joy to “chin-wag” with people who were considered good friends.

Dad retired in April 1979. He told me that he wanted to write a book one day on life as he saw it through the eyes of a Telegraphist. Sadly, an illness robbed him of muscular strength after retirement. He passed away in December
2005.

To keep with change, the Telegraph Department had to give way to the advent of new technology. When mobile phones, email, SMS, WhatsApp and Facebook came along, they offered instantaneous communication. The Department shrank to a quarter of its original size as the teleprinter was replaced by a computer to send telegrams by email. The desks vanished; the incessant hum of conversation and the constant chatter of the teleprinters were heard no more. In the midst of it all, quietly and finally, the telegram became redundant and died a silent death. The Government decided to close down the facility of the telegram on July 15, 2013.

On that last day, the public was given the opportunity to send telegrams one last time before midnight. To commemorate this poignant moment in history, and to keep alive the memory Dad and his tenure in the Telegraph Department, I went all the way to the familiar CTO at about 8 o’clock that night and sent separate telegrams to my Mum, sister, three brothers, and one to myself saying: “Last day last service – Sent from Dad’s office”.

As I came home that night, nostalgia overwhelmed me. Though Dad was no longer with us, I wanted to reach out to the many other surviving Anglo-Indian men and women who had worked alongside with him. I wanted to convey to them that I too grieved at the passing of an era that still holds a special place of affection in our hearts. By descent I consider myself to be a footnote in that chapter of the history of the telegram in India. – (Courtesy: Anglos in the Wind.)

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