A Scandal In ‘Babu’ Calcutta
Once, a poor Brahmin (a person belonging to the community of priests) approached the household of Raja Nabakrishna Deb, the all-powerful dewan of Warren Hastings, with a small bowl for some ittar (essence). His son, Gopimohun playfully told the Brahmin that he should instead approach their neighbour, Churamoni Dutta. He further suggested they might be offended by such a small bowl and instead he should get a pitcher for the ittar. When the simpleton went to Dutta he directed his son, Kaliprasad to buy enough ittar to fill the pitcher. It cost them Rs 2500 in those days. Churamoni Dutta, then, asked the Brahmin to show the pot to the Debs. Once his instruction was carried out the Brahmin was asked to return the ittar and the entire amount was paid to him in cash.
There are many such anecdotes of one-upmanship that was common among Babus (neo rich Bengali under company’s rule ) of Calcutta. For instance, the rivalry between Nabakrishna Deb and Churamoni Dutta knew no bounds. Prankrishna Dutta gave an account of this keen rivalry between the two families and their ways in Kalikata-r Itibritta (a book about narratives of old Calcutta).
Nabakrishna, because of his proximity to the British rulers had amassed great wealth in a short time and held Durga Puja at his residence with much fanfare. He had spent Rs 9 lakh in those days while performing the last rites of his mother. It had raised the hackles of other wealthy Babus of Calcutta. However, the rivalry between two groups culminated in an incident that rocked the Hindu society and left it divided and subsequently, came to be known as Kaliprasadi Hungama (ruckus over Kaliprasad). Calcutta witnessed a clash of titans who were equals in terms of wealth and influence in society.
As said earlier, Nabakrishna and Churamoni were neighbours, residing at either end of what is today known as Gray Street. Nabakrishna had died suddenly in sleep in 1797 but people in those days considered such deaths as inauspicious ones. Hindus believed that those aspiring for heaven after death should be left on the banks of the holy Ganges for three days in full consciousness. Then he would lie down, partially submerged in the waters, chant sacred mantras and sip only the holy water of the river till his soul left his body. So when Churamoni Dutta was in his death bed he was taken to the banks of the river in a silver palanquin with a huge procession following behind, accompanied by drum beatings, almost like a marriage party. The drummers and kirtaniyas stopped in front of the residence of the Debs and raised a commotion, singing “Chura jai yam jinite” (Churamoni is going to win over Yama the god of death) while dancing and making ugly gestures, taking a dig at the inauspicious death of the Raja.
After a few days Churamoni had his desired end but his son, Kaliprasad Dutta was put in a tight spot when Brahmins refused to attend the final rites, because of his association with a Muslim woman named Bibi Anaro. This Shia woman from Lucknow was renowned for her beauty which led to her being named Anaro (pomegranate). According to Radharaman Mitra the garden house bequeathed to Bibi Anaro by Kaliprasad now houses the Sales Tax Building at Beleghata. She had also built an imambara on Benepukur Road. Kaliprasad spent his days with her and lived and ate like a Muslim. After his father’s death his act of repentance was hence unacceptable to orthodox Hindus. Nabakrishna was the patron of most of the Brahmins living in and around Calcutta and hence, one can easily comprehend their sudden reluctance to attend the ceremony.
A helpless Kaliprasad then sought refuge from Ramdoolal De Sarkar, a prosperous merchant who, in those, did trade with the US. Ramdoolal, the father of Chatubabu and Latubabu, belonged to the rival camp of Nabakrishna, that of Madanmohan Dutta of Hatkhola who was his benefactor. Ramdoolal had started off as an employee of Madanmohan Dutta, earning a sum of Rs 5 which later increased to Rs 10. Once, Madanmohan gave him Rs 14,000 to take part in an auction for cotton. However, Ramdoolal failed to participate in it and instead bought a ship that had sunk with its cargo with the same amount. He then sold it again to English merchant for Rs 1,14,000, thus earning a profit of Rs 1lakh. He gave the entire amount to his employer. Madanmohan Dutta who was impressed by his honesty returned the entire sum to him which Ramdoolal used as capital to set up his own business.
Ramdoolal did not favour Kaliprasad’s lifestyle. But he was incensed that the society suddenly took umbrage because of instigations from a rich man. He assured Kaliprasad that till there was single paisa left in his chest he would leave no stone unturned to ensure his father’s last rites are performed smoothly. He started spending his money to garner support and create a split in the opposition camp. Ramdoolal sought the assistance of Santosh Ray of the family of Sabarna Chowdhury who also wielded similar influence.
Settled in Barishsa, this ancient family occupied the upper echelon in the caste hierarchy and patronized many Brahmins. In fact, Shibdeb Chowdhury came to be known as “Santosh Ray” because he always ensured the contentment (santosh) of those who sought his assistance. A man with a huge appetite, he had immense physical strength. According to a popular lore, Santosh Roy was once imprisoned by Nawab Alivardi Khan for not paying excess revenue imposed during raids by Bargis (raiders from western India). However, the sight of Santosh Roy gorging down the meat of an entire goat impressed him so much that the Nawab not only set him free but also granted him a village near Diamond Harbour to pay for his gastronomic indulgences.
Santosh Roy agreed to help. On the said day, he arrived at the ceremony with a huge procession. Kaliprasad offered Rs 25,000 to the assembled Brahmins but Santosh Ray told them that there might be criticism if they accepted money and instead proposed to rebuild the temple at Kalighat with the sum. However, Santosh Roy died before the temple could be completed and it was his son who finished the construction. Thus Kaliprasad Dutta could buy his way back into the fold of Hinduism and the society with the help of his influential friends.