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How the East was won: rake, track & wagon

September 1845. With an eye on expanding its imperial network, the East India Company commissions civil engineer F.W. Simms to conduct a survey for the laying of a “rail road” in the Bengal Presidency. Simms travels across Calcutta on elephant back and submits a feasibility report to the government of Bengal. Nine years later, the first locomotive pulls out of Howrah terminus for Pandua.

Records relating to these official proceedings and various hand-written annals of British history, preserved in the West Bengal State Archives, will go on display between April 7 and 12, as part of the Annual Archives Week, organised to mark the 150th anniversary of Indian Railways. The exhibition will showcase a corpus of 120 documents — tracing the genesis and expansion of Indian Railways in eastern India — at 6, Bhawani Dutta Lane, a five-storeyed building almost concealed by the towering Presidency College and an array of bookshops. The address houses the historical section of the West Bengal State Archives and is a repository of priceless government records, dating back to the close of the 18th Century. The other two branches are in Writers’ Buildings and on Shakespeare Sarani.

“The archives week is celebrated every year on a particular theme. We thought Indian Railways would be a good choice this year, especially since we have valuable documents ever since the first rail track was laid in the Bengal Presidency,” says archives director Pranab Chatterjee.

Annals of land acquisition for the Howrah terminus, coal transport, Strand Road and landing ghats in their formative stages, infrastructure detail of the railways and duties of rail personnel reveal the British blueprint for communication.

“The documents have been chosen carefully to follow the growth chart of the rail link in this part of the country which was vast, stretching from the Arakan on the Burma border to Agra in the west. While propelling the British Raj, the rail line also fanned the national movement. You’ll find records of a detective recruited in Eastern Bengal State Railway, protests against the sacking of Bengal Nagpur Railway staff led by V.V. Giri and the Bamangachi shooting,” elucidates Chatterjee.

The 1928 police firing in Liluah, railway safety measures taken by the British government during the Quit India movement and the 1909 bomb attack on Bengal Governor Andrew Fraser in Narayangarh are some of the historical high points. A few charts have also been displayed, the latest one being on the Metro Rail network.

“West Bengal State Archives has the country’s richest collection of non-current material, more than 30 years old. I hope the exhibition will generate some consciousness about the archives among Calcuttans,” says Chatterjee.

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