Sixty-four- year-old Ramakka, who hails from Jagtial District in Telangana, is filled with nostalgia when asked about cassettes, as she remembers how she used to communicate her feelings and express her sentiments to her husband.
In the northern districts of what is now Telangana, which saw several migrant labourers travelling to Gulf countries for work through the 1980s and 1990s, audio cassettes hold a special place in people's hearts. Those who were not literate and could not write letters, would 'speak' to their loved ones, by recording messages in audio cassettes.
After sending their cassettes, several people enthusiastically waited for around one month for another cassette to return, which would contain the reply of their loved on. Though it was one way communication, an entire family would gather around and laugh, cry and chatter away after hitting the record button, and feel that their loved one would soon hear their voice.
"It was the latest technology then, and it felt like I could speak with my husband who was in Qatar at the time," Ramakka says.
Her son, Narender Panneur, a Non-Resident Indian (NRI) from Oman, who is now in India for a vacation, termed it as a 'golden era'.
Speaking to TNM, he says, "My father, Panneru Eliah, spent nearly 40 years of his life in Qatar. I was young when my mother and other family members enthusiastically waited for the recorded audio cassettes from my father."
"At that time, everybody who had migrated to the Gulf for work, wanted to listen to the voice of their loved ones. At that time, my mom used to send recorded audio cassettes of 60, 90 and even 120 minutes to my father, with the voices of the full family. My father would be full of joy after listening to the voices," he recounts.
Boda Jay Reddy who also spent about 23 years in Al Ain city in United Arab Emirates (UAE) besides Abu Dhabi tells TNM, “It was a wonderful experience and a pleasant surprise when I used to hear the audio recordings of my family members. Several times, when I felt homesick, I would rewind the cassettes and listen to them several times over. The voices of all my family members, including the elderly people, who would sit under one roof and record their voices for me, would move me.”
“I could perceive their thoughts and emotions with their voices, which was not possible with the handwritten letters. I used to feel a sigh of relief after knowing that they are doing well. This was the importance of the audio cassettes," he adds.
Bheem Reddy, an activist who works with Gulf migrants in northern Telangana, says that with the introduction of the cassettes, even illiterate people who had to rely on others till then, could now communicate directly with their loved ones.
"They simply recorded their voice and sent it to their relatives either by post, or through someone who was going to the country where their relatives were working. The cassettes would take 15 days to reach their destination through registered post," he said.
"Once they got a response, the families would feel like their loved ones are in front of them, while listening to the recordings. It was an emotional attachment and many scenes of people breaking down were witnessed in homes in Telangana and in the quarters where the migrant labourers lived,” he added.
The trend, which began in the 70s, went on for almost 35 years, until the early 2000s. It was not in the northern districts of Telangana alone. Many from parts of Hyderabad's old city, would also do the same.
In Hyderabad, Kotla Alijah, Jagdish Market, Afzal Gunj and High Court road were the hubs where one could buy cassettes. A large number of people used to visit these areas to buy cassettes from the shops, before heading to post offices in Hyderabad to send them to the Gulf.
Nisar Mohammed, who worked as a postmaster at the Tadban post office in Hyderabad recalls, "People used to send the recorded audio cassettes from important post offices of the city including the General Post Office in Abids. Post offices in Bahadurpura, Jubilee Hills and Falaknuma were also popular for this."
"They used to buy specially made envelopes from stationery shops, and would wrap the cassettes in a piece of cloth and sew it with utmost care, before inserting them into envelopes. This was done to ensure that there was no damage to the cassettes. The postal employees would accept the delivery after weighing the parcels and seeing the stamps pasted on it," he added.
Bheem Reddy said that although it was one-way communication, it found a place in the hearts of a large number of people.
"Now the communication has become simple and a video call is a fingertip away," he says.
Wajeed Ullah Khan is a Hyderabad-based freelance journalist who writes predominantly on the issues surrounding Old City. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org