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That House That Age – Chapter 12
“To tell you the truth, what didi was telling that day about our great grandfather and grandfather, is correct. Babu Ram Nath Roy Chowdhury, son of Hara Nath Roy Chowdhury was exceptionally intelligent and energetic, risk taking and thoughtful entrepreneur; rare to find among the men of his ilk not only at his time but now. He was one of the patricians of Kolkata and the patriarch of the family” Ranadeb said before his adult and longtime married children and similar children of some brothers and the other confidants including cousins and cousins’ children in the house gathered together. With utmost curiosity they were waiting to hear his talk about their often-heard ancestral story which was rather unusual. They heard many stories from their Dadu but all were incomplete, and something of it was heard from some neighbors too.
“I want to hear about our grandfather and his father and father’s father if you know of them in detail,” Ashok, his next aged cousin said with some curiosity in his voice. But they knew that he was not that serious as it seemed.
“I never saw my grandfather or anyone of earlier generations. I lived and still live with your Jethu or Dadu to others, my father. I have studied some papers relating to ownership of business with curiosity. They were collected and preserved by one of your granduncles, though to no particular purpose but with interest in the past history of the family, as a hobby,” telling this Rano looked at Bilu. Everyone looked at him to find that his face was beaming with pride for it is his grandfather whom the speaker indicated. They looked back at the speaker.
“My story and ideas aren’t entirely based on those papers for they are Xerox and half burnt copies of some old property documents and some agreements in respect of the companies floated by our great grandfather, but they aren’t all. There were other evidences too like his Will which was in my possession. The story of properties I built up was corroborated by some stories that I heard from my elders who are no more. I too witnessed many that happened in later years when my grandfather wasn’t living.” Rano said. After a pause he began again,
“Living in his village home, owning some lands and landed properties jointly with others in the family after his father’s demise, Babu Ram Nath came to Kolkata and was engaged in a merchant firm as an employee. He was FA, a degree just before graduation, rare in those days. After satisfactory service career for some years, he earned enough, spent less and accumulated enough resources to acquire half of lands and other properties belonging to his relatives in his village, mainly to his aunt after the death of his uncle, on payment. He acquired more farmlands and other properties like huge gardens and orchards. He really became the major owner of all properties in his village to be considered a real Zamindar who paid taxes to the Government and collected khajna from the people they called praja or subjects, living and engaged in profitable work like cultivation using lands within his jurisdiction. This was according to British system of allotment of lands and collecting taxes from people through the Zamindars.
“Then he began his business activities in Kolkata. He bought a factory manufacturing some building materials in east Kolkata and bought a garden house with a big pond dug in it and planted trees around. The garden house was surrounded by boundary walls. The property was called Manicktola Garden. In our childhood fishes were caught from the pond and brought to our home from our Manicktola Garden house and kept in four walled cement and brick-built reservoirs, to be consumed later. An iron factory was bought at Kidderpore and the big business house was founded with an Englishman in which some other Europeans joined later. The office was in Dalhousie Square area. It undertook ship building, ship repairing, ship hiring, working as shipping agent and other businesses in large scale including general order supplying. Side by side with business he purchased numbers of houses, mostly in areas surrounding his residential building in north Kolkata and some in central Kolkata also, totaling to about 8/9 houses including gardens. He became one of the pioneer business and industry owners of the then Kolkata in British India.
“At quite an advanced age in about 1905 when agitation was rife against the proposed partition of Bengal, Babu Ram Nath Roy Chowdhury made a Will after much consideration in an appropriate manner in cool brain, to ensure that all his heirs would be given their shares in his properties after he would cease to exist in the world. He mentioned his ancestral and acquired properties in his ancestral village too. It was quite a complicated affair to give shares according to social norms, different relationship and according to the social status of the persons concerned. There were, as usual in those days, number of widows in the house. In those days women were given lesser importance compared to men folk and among them widows were given yet lesser importance. He had three sons, but the second son died early leaving his widow. The widow was given a right to rupees five per month besides right to live in the house with all rights to food and shelter but if she lived with her parents, she would forfeit her rights. They had no children, so the living two sons are mentioned in the story as elder and younger. Babu Ram Nath’s own daughters too were given properties according to their financial status after marriage. One daughter was given a house. Otherwise in those days women in general had no right to ancestral properties. He tried to involve his first son, Dwijendra Nath, in his business and established a business house in his name but learning from experience about his interest and aptitude he deprived him of business rights though not the right to profits exactly. The progenies of him are our blood cousins. His first son lacked interest in business; he had insufficient intelligence coupled with lack of business acumen. The third or last son, Sumatha Nath was given to manage all business houses and the elder was given some house properties. Ram Nath willed that his wife, if she lived after his death, would be the sole executrix of the estate and in her absence the youngest son would manage all properties. There was no continuation of Sati Daha system then, it occupied no space in his thought. Though making a Will in those days as inheritor and owner of many businesses and industries was quite difficult, he saw to it that none was entirely deprived of their rights as his heirs. It proves that he was a judicious person with legal knowledge, sufficient moral and ethical responsibilities. He took the help of legal practitioners, attorneys and barristers.
“It is not exactly known when, but all the properties were divided and apportioned by mutual consent among the heirs in a meeting called for the purpose with sufficient witnesses not long after the death of Babu Ram Nath Roy Chowdhury.
“Both Dwijendra Nath and Sumatha Nath Roy Chowdhury had enough resources to carry on lavishly. Both had good numbers of children. Sumatha gave birth to 17 children through his two wives, first died after giving birth to one son, Dasu who too died at an young age. Dwijendra Nath had almost the same numbers of children though it might be lesser than his brother. Both the brothers didn’t pay much attention towards their children’s education and growth as per the usual norms of the time. But such norms weren’t applicable to such greatly educated and highly cultured families like that of Sir Ashutosh Mookerjee or the Tagores. Sir Ashutosh became a legend in his lifetime. After his death his sons donated his library full of books to the National Library at Kolkata as he had wished which are kept in a separate wing. Can you guess the number of books he donated?”
None dared to guess after hearing the brief introduction about the legend Sir Ashutosh whose big mustached face was familiar to all. They looked at the speaker for an answer.
“85000 books were donated from his library,” Rano said. None could imagine if so great numbers of books were read by him and if so, how could that be possible!
Someone quipped, “He was Bengal Tiger”
Casting a glance at him Rano resumed, “However, their education continued in unregulated rhythm. It is up to that, all grew up healthy and strong except a few. I have heard enough about Sumatha Nath’s (my Dadu) business houses and his dealings with the European partners, sometimes dominating them and sometimes dominated by them, directly or indirectly. Studying his story as a businessman through a few agreements and papers explained his nature and social, business relationship with the other partners.
“After the mutual partition of properties, business portfolio entirely came to his grab without any obligation to share profit with his elder brother who he cared little, especially after the demise of his mother. My grandfather became somehow carefree and reckless, letting lose the reign of his whim and passion. Not only horses and horse carriages but cars came to his possession which he used to go anywhere, with our grandmother sometimes but mostly alone with his driver, especially at nights.
Ram Nath was the owner of the business houses but sometimes he shared some businesses as partner with the Europeans. After Sumatha took over he had several agreements with the partners. At one point he became the sole proprietor of the main business. He employed two Europeans in his business as employees but strangely, he agreed to give them shares of profit. In the course of time, he became a sleeping partner and different partners, newly introduced, became the active partners. He drew fixed sums of money as his share of business. One agreement stated that it was done to show a better image of the business house to the colonial Government and their main clients, as if the business house belonged to Europeans so that it could get more favour from them. Though Sumatha Nath was shown as sleeping partner it was stated that he would be given active partner status after five years, if he wished so. Though I can’t comment on this, it seems strange!”
After a pause he said, “It might not be to show but the actual position was shown in a roundabout way.”
The audience seemed not to clearly understand the implications of the agreements. They looked at each other but then after a pause they fixed their attention at the speaker.
“What I surmise is that there were monetary considerations behind all such agreements. While an impression that it was a European concern might help the management to get more help from the Government or others, to resume real partnership after five years is debatable. How could such a dynamic person like Sumatha Nath agree to all these? In fact, he didn’t live to complete five years more as he died quite young, even before attending fiftieth year of his birth. He left the world quite earlier”, he sighed, “very unfortunate!”
The audience was saddened. Bowing their heads for quite some time they too seemed sighing.
“And you know, he mortgaged some of his properties to the European partners!” Ranadeb almost shouted but concluded in lower tone, “with intent to pay back his debts in time, maybe for some debacles suffered by him in the course of running the show!”
Someone from outside shouted to inform that some important persons were waiting to meet Ranadeb for quite some time. He meant to say that he had been telling this for quite some time, but none paid any attention. The caller came near and suggested that he should first meet them before continuing the present session. Ranadeb felt disturbed and looking at his watch said,
“I strongly feel that the partners were in league to snatch the business entirely from his hands when they were in control of it for quite some time, showing losses, etc.”
Then feeling the impatience of the caller, he looked back and with a gesture of his hand suggested that he would come soon. Turning to his audience he said, “Today up to this, we shall resume the next in time.” Hurriedly he left to join the caller.
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