Travelling long distance in 1929

Pradeep Gooptu

Few Bengali motorists travelled by road for adventure alone in the early 20th century. This is a rare account from 1929, fortunately captured by the leading Bengali magazine of the period.

In 1928 a Bengali family determined that they would drive around the country during the Durga Puja holiday. The phrase “drive around the country” is to be understood literally. From Calcutta to Agra and then south via Gwalior to Bombay and finally eastwards via Pune to Madras! A daunting 3200 miles route in all. If the plan was unbelievably ambitious, even for today, the astonishing fact is that our six travellers actually made it unscathed. The group till Bombay included two ladies married to two of our adventurers.

The team comprised of Binoy Das, Srijuth Ghosh, Sudhangshumohan Chatterjee and two ladies. Dhiren Das drove for much of the way, with driver Selamat Miya providing backup after Agra.

Why the route
It appears that our motoring friends wanted to see the great Mughal monuments of north India before journeying to Bombay as it was a bustling metropolis. While their account is very sketchy in many ways it does bring out their pronounced spirit of adventure.

For example, after the first day, they put their professional driver on the train to Agra so they had a less congested car. The purpose was defeated since a friend seized this opportunity and jumped in, so the headcount remained six!

How did they travel
The car selected was a new Ford. Given the year, this would have been the very popular Ford Model A which had replaced the Model T Ford in 1927. It had a lazy 3290cc engine which gave it good pulling power. The Indian version of this American car had a larger radiator and higher ground clearance with stronger tyres to cope with bad roads. It had four wheel brakes and four front lamps for night driving.

Roadside support
The travellers used maps and notes from the Automobile Association of Bengal (AAB) to travel all the way to Agra. From Agra onwards to Bombay they travelled using a guide book and Survey of India maps assisted by a route chart.

The team halted overnight mostly at hotels at the end of each day’s travel, alternating with a few relatives who offered them hospitality. Several ‘dak’ bungalows played a crucial role in providing shelter and meals; a service that has sadly all but vanished now.

The adventurers sought out the local Automobile Association at all towns but the service there was usually poor. Interestingly, it was the local Ford dealer who, besides washing and checking the car, provided vital support.

Food & comfort
I was really amused to read that most places they managed to get rice along with a vegetarian and a non-vegetarian curry suitable to the Bengali palate. That must have been challenging.

While the group used the Grand Trunk Road to traverse north India to Agra, there is very little description of the condition of the ancient highway. As we know, it was a 40-foot wide dusty avenue till the advent of motoring. The British government then paved it over with tarmac, first from Calcutta to Ranigunj for the coal trade, and then beyond in stages. This helped speed up commercial traffic and, later on, army/police movement.

The accounts narrate one accident involving a motorcyclist with a car. At several locations, the car faced a hazard common even today – the problem of herds of domestic cattle and sheep (occasionally camels too) occupying the road.

As an aside we learn that despite heavy rains in the journey to Agra, the road was good enough to maintain a steady pace. In fact, the diary breaks up the journey by the day and number of miles covered so that we get a fascinating travelogue that is informative as well as entertaining.

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