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Treasure trove
A 19th century sketch of Eastern Railway; (above) the Howrah-Ranigunje fare chart

Those who know me well will know that my team and I have been engaged in an interminable bibliographical project for the past four years, which involves looking at pretty much all Bengali books ever printed till 1947. To this end, I have been lurking in the reading rooms of the British Library for the past one month and making life difficult for the issue desk. Bibliographical work can often be tedious and back-breaking, but its reward is the thrill of discovering books which were last read over a century ago, and were lost for all practical purposes.

Many of these books were lost for a very good reason — they were rubbish and did not deserve to be read. But this is not always the case.

The other day I came across a 20-page book written in 1854 by Akshaykumar Datta, the great scholar and rationalist. It was called Baspiya Upadesh and was subtitled ‘Directions For A Railway-Traveller’. The book had been written just after the railways were introduced in Bengal and contained practical advice and general reassurance for the first time railway passenger. At the end of the book, there was a foldout giving the timetable and the fare chart of the railway service between Howrah and Ranigunje.

The first thing that strikes you as you look at the table is the use of the word ‘adda’ for station, which seems to suggest that the word was first used in Hindi (an airport is called hawai adda in Hindi). Then, as now, the distance between Howrah and Ranigunje was 201 miles, but there were just 21 stations, which works out to an average of one station per 10 miles. The morning up train would leave Howrah at 10.30am, and reach Bally 15 minutes later, which is not bad going at all, since it takes pretty much the same time even now. It took exactly one hour to reach Chandernagore, and from there another two to reach Burdwan.

There were altogether seven stations from Howrah to Mogra, but just two between Mogra and Burdwan. The first is given as Pe()ro and must surely be modern-day Pandua, while the other was and continues to be Memari. At Burdwan, the train took a half-hour break and resumed its journey at 2pm to reach Ranigunje at 4.30pm, taking in stations such as Mankar, Panagarh and Andal. The other stations are unfamiliar to me, though others may have a better idea about what they are today.

The fare chart is less easy to decipher, being given in the older pre-decimal system. We find that a first-class single to Burdwan was as much as Rs 8, though it fell sharply to Rs 3 and Re 1 for the second and third classes respectively. The cheapest fare was an anna-and-a-half, for a trip between Howrah and Bally. One wonders how much a ticket from 1854 would fetch today, were it ever to be found.

The author teaches English at Jadavpur University

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