Column | Hello, Peshawar! Trivandrum’s tryst with telephone history

Image of an antique phone used for representational purpose. Photo:

We live in an age where an international video call from one corner of this planet to another is both inexpensive and universally accessible. A concept like this would have seemed like some sort of fantasy even three decades ago. Now, a person in his 40s or 50s would have to try hard to explain the concept of a trunk call to a teenager. This concept, however, was revolutionary in the world of telecommunication in the first half of the 20th century, and the capital of the modern state of Kerala made history in this regard in April, 1940.

Long telecom journey
By 1864, Trivandrum, Quillon and Alleppey had telegraph offices, according to the Indian state-owned telecommunication company Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL). Telephones came to Cochin in 1923, while Trivandrum got a 10-Line Magnetto Exchange in 1930, says BSNL’s website.

It was in the 1930s that the colonial authorities tried to link up telephone exchanges in British India and the princely states. Linking the vast territories of the undivided Indian subcontinent was no easy task and would take years.

Wire reports from 1940 mention India’s longest underground cable being laid in the Travancore High Ranges. “The cable will carry the trunk telephone line connecting the European tea and rubber districts of Travancore with the rest of the world,” International News Service or INS, a US-based news agency wrote on February 8, 1940. “The High Ranges are elephant country, and there is also other big game, such as tiger and bison. To eliminate the danger of interference by such wild animals, the cable is being laid underground.”

Two months after the cable was laid, Trivandrum would become just a phone call away from distant parts of the subcontinent. On the morning of April 22, 1940, C P Ramaswami Iyer, Dewan of Travancore, made a trunk call to Peshawar in what was then India’s Northwest Frontier. The call was answered by Gurunath Venkatesh Bewoor, an illustrious civil servant, who was then the Director-General of Posts and Telegraph.

The telephone call was also reported by the international press. “Telephone call over the longest distance within India, namely, from Trivandrum to Peshawar was put through today inaugurating the linking up of the Trivandrum trunk telephone system with the Indian trunk line,” the Malaya Tribune reported. “The Travancore trunk line was laid by the State Government to British Indian standards, and the linking up with the Indian system is at Alleppey.”

There are no details about the length of this historic phone call in the public domain. “It is an interesting fact that with this linking up, trunk telephone will be brought to the land’s end of India, Cape Comorin, the picturesque old world village where three seas meet,” the Malaya Tribune added.

There is also no information about how long the ‘India record’ shared by Trivandrum and Peshawar lasted. One could easily assume a call would have been made from Cape Comorin (Kanyakumari) to an area farther away than the frontier city in undivided India, but this writer could not find any articles in the newspaper archives.

A little over seven years after that historic trunk call was made, Trivandrum, now Thiruvananthapuram, and Peshawar found themselves in two different countries after a bloody partition of the subcontinent.

A landline telephone remained a luxury for citizens of independent India for decades, with private players being kept out until the 1990s. Many recall the waiting lists for a landline that ran into years!
Trunk calls remained popular until the early 2000s, and were used by those whose landlines did not have a Subscriber Trunk Dialling facility.

Of course, many Indians managed to leapfrog landlines and get cellular phones and smartphones, bringing us to a world where a Trivandrum to Peshawar call is a simple task, even if it is one that would attract undue scrutiny from those in power on both sides of the divide. There is so little to link these two cities in the 21st century and the times are such that the very idea of them becoming sister cities is hard to imagine. A peaceful and prosperous South Asia of the future may just help bridge the kind of gaps that look insurmountable in 2024.
(Ajay Kamalakaran is a multilingual writer, primarily based in Mumbai)

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