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Highlights In The Shadows: 15 - Kharagpur

Owen Clement introduces his home town, Kharagpur in India – the town which has the longest railway platform in the world.

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The original village of Kharagpur, situated on a red sandy plain seventy-two miles (110 kilometres) south west of Calcutta in West Bengal, was rebuilt as a railway junction in the year 1900. Civil engineer Colonel C. W. Bowles was appointed by the British, Bengal Nagpur Railway Company to take charge of constructing its workshops, houses, schools, churches, hospitals, armoury, recreational facilities and a gaol, which once boasted two very important Indian political prisoners, Chandra Bose and Jawaharlal Nehru.

Kharagpur to this day has the longest railway platform in the world (1,029 metres).

The Madras Mail branch line from Calcutta ran through Kharagpur on its way south along the rim of the Bay of Bengal to Madras. The Bombay Mail branch line continued west across the Indian sub-continent via Nagpur to Bombay.

By 1929, in less than thirty years, the town’s railway workshops covered over one hundred and forty nine and a half acres, fifty-four and a half of them covered, employing over ten thousand workmen and women. It became the largest single repairing workshop in India.

The residential area was built on the European plan of broad streets and open spaces. Six avenues ran East-West parallel to the main rail lines. The residents along First and Second avenues housed the most subordinate members of the company. The more senior locomotive drivers, workshop charge-hands and foremen were housed along Third Avenue and Fourth Avenue and finally, the palatial Officers homes and grounds were situated along Fifth and Sixth Avenue. All the residences fronted the avenues.

These wide avenues lined with Teak, Neem and other large leafy trees on both sides offered continuous shade for the town’s folk.

The native Gole Bazaar where the residents did their grocery shopping, was spread out on the other side of the tracks.

The golf course was nothing more than an open area called the Chandmari Maidan on the town’s southern outskirts set aside for the town’s future development. This area also doubled as a rifle range.

The hockey players in Kharagpur were highly respected throughout India. At least four of its members were part of the representative team that toured overseas before the Second World War competing for the Batan Cup, with India a consistent winner. Brothers Carl and Les Tapsell and Dick Carr were the three players that I remember.

The 1930’s Olympics Indian hockey team was voted by the commentators as displaying the most outstanding exhibition of skill in any sport. Ron Vernieux represented India in the athletics in 1932 Olympics and Jenny Boland (Sanderson), as a sixteen year old in the late nineteen thirties, played tennis for India at Wimbledon. Unfortunately when Jenny went to collect her tennis rackets before her match, she found that the strings had been slashed. Not having experienced this type of behaviour it broke her spirit and she did not perform well nor, I believe, did she play for India again.

Sports were not always taken seriously, as a fund raising exercise at Christmas time each year a Pagal (mad) Gymkhana was held with the usual silly sports like egg and spoon, potato sack and three legged races. It was when all classes of the community mixed equally.

The Apprentices Home, where my father spent his first five years in Kharagpur, was situated between Fourth and Fifth Avenues on the western side of the town. It housed about four hundred young men at a time. Two dormitories were over the lecture rooms on the east and west wings. A self-contained unit at one end downstairs accommodated the housemother and father. Above the kitchen and dining of the north-south wing, were the showers and toilets. The shower room was literally an open floor space with showerheads lined up opposite each other. The inventive lads often used it to play 'bum football'. They would soap the wet floor and then skid around on their bare behinds playing football with a cake of soap.

Across the street, though not connected, were the grounds of a large two-storied hospital.

© Clement 2006


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