Wednesday, 17 July 2013

The death of the telegraph. And their careers

Fifty-nine-year old Sushil Kumar, an employee at New Delhi’s Central Telegraph Office in Connaught Place, was a loquacious and busy man till last week. Now he is quiet and bored.

As the sun set on India’s 163-year-old state telegraph services on Sunday (14 July), Kumar and many other employees of the Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL), that provided the service, have seen their lives change radically.

Kumar, the senior telegraph master, now sits at his desk staring at peeling paint of the office’s pale yellow walls and says he feels like his life has been dealt a blow with the death of the telegraph.

Employed at the telegraph office since 1975, Kumar’s job mainly consisted of taking down the text of the telegrams that were to be sent. After 39 years of working in a role that required continuous interaction with people, furious typing skills and being an empathetic outsider to people who came to send good news and bad, Kumar told Firstpost that his life now feels like “it has no heartbeat”.

“We used to keep so busy – doing our work, joking with customers and sharing their happiness, sadness and disappointments – and we never realised how time passed. Now, with no public coming in to send telegrams, there’s an a pall of eerie silence. How much can one talk only to one’s colleagues?” Kumar asked.

A typical work day for Kumar now involves him coming in to office, staring at his computer screen for most part of the day, indulging in small talk with colleagues and returning home.

India’s telegraph services, introduced in the country in 1850, have been eulogised on numerous occasions in various films and like its immortality on celluloid, RD Ram, the chief telegraph officer at Delhi’s CTO remains hopeful of its revival.

“I know the service has been shut down, but I’m still hopeful there will be a turnaround,” Ram said, referring to a PIL filed in the Madras High Court seeking a stay on the decision to shut down India’s telegraph services.

Ram, who has worked in the office for 38 years, said he was very saddened by the decision.

“When I joined the service the minimum qualification was to be a class 10th pass, having good typing skills and a good handwriting. For people with these qualifications, who over the years learned to adapt to every type of telegraph technology that came and went and trained so hard to adjust, this decision is heartbreaking,” he told Firstpost.

“We never ever dreamed that our jobs will one day be lost and we will be in the spot we are in today. It’s like our shop, our work, our livelihood. Will a shopkeeper ever want his business to shut down?” he asked.

According to Ram, the CTO received an official intimation of closure of the services a month earlier, asking employees about where they would prefer to be transferred within BSNL. While many employees stated their choices, there were others who did not, hoping that it would mean staying back as long as the CTO still existed.

Madhu Bindal, senior section officer, is one such person.

Bindal retires in February 2014 after working at the CTO for 34 years, where she started her career and hopes to end it.

“This was like home and leaving it is unthinkable for me. I often think, ‘Where will I go? What will I do and how will I learn anything new in the time I have left’,” she said.

“I didn’t state my preference for any department transfer hoping that I am kept right here, till it’s time for me to go next February.”

“Nobody knows where they will be transferred or how they will adjust to a whole new job and colleagues. The future is uncertain for all of us and it gives me sleepless nights,” she said.

Ram said that work in the telegraph office started showing signs of slowing down after the early 90′s with the advent of newer technologies of communication. But he never imagined the telegraph services would be abolished because he believed it still catered to the masses and mainly to rural areas.

“In the 1980s only the Delhi CTO saw around 50,000 transactions per day on an average. Those were the peak days, where many of us worked more than our required 8 hours, sometimes clocking an entire 24-hours. We also got incentives on each additional telegram we sent beyond 200. Those were our glory days,” he said.

Compared to that, the Delhi CTO (which includes the Delhi Cantonment, Kashmere Gate, Janakpuri, Supreme Court and Connaught Place branches) in the last year, saw only an average of 250 telegrams being sent per day, says Ram.

Former national kabbadi player, Usha Gautam’s eyes well up as she talks about leaving the CTO.

“This was my first job and I want it to be my last. It’s like a first love – one you don’t want to leave or forget,” Gautam said.

Having worked at the CTO for 33 years, Gautam says she is feeling cheated of her home.

“This was my home for 33 years where all of us lived like a family. I always boasted to everyone that there’s no better place to work at than the CTO and about how much fun we had. Maybe, I jinxed our happiness,” Gautam said, “I feel like I have now become homeless.”

For one-time messengers of the public, eagerly adapting and adopting new telegraph technology, life has taken a strange twist with technology becoming their nemesis.

“We were the public’s messengers and were so happy being so. Going from having direct, daily interactions with the public and an insight into a slice of their lives, we have become mere puppets to technology,” Kumar said.

“Once I sat on my computer typing and sending telegrams. Today, I just browse the internet and read news on it all day,” he said.

This piece was written for

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