25 February 2008

Ramdulal Sarkar-Bengal's first millionaire

Dum Dum in north Calcutta is a thickly populated place now. It is now very difficult for the pedestrians to walk through the main road of this place. The pavements, like all the pavements of Calcutta streets, are occupied by hawkers. But the place was not so 240 years ago. The whole area was covered with dense forest. There were stray villages here and there. It was never safe to travel through this place after sunset. The place was a habitat of tigers, snakes and various wild animals. But the most dangerous were the dacoits who were very cruel and never hesitated to kill the helpless persons even for trifle things. This was a time when the Muslim rulers were fallen into degeneration and the law and order broke down. The East India Company was yet to settle with power to rule Bengal. It was also the time when Raghuji Bhonsle, the king of Nagpur (in western India) and his minister Bhaskar Pandit with their people attacked Bengal frequently to plunder and loot everything from the villagers of Bengal. They were known as borgis and the people of Bengal became very much afraid of those dreaded people.

At this time Balaram De lived in a small village named Rekjani near this place. He was a very poor man. He was a teacher in a primary school and earned so little that it was very difficult to maintain even his small family. His was not a singular case; most of the teachers in Bengal were to pass their lives in utter poverty. But the tyranny of the borgis compelled him to leave his village in 1752. He fled his village with his pregnant wife. On the way there was a vast barren land. It was like a sea of land and no living being could be traced in that lone place. It was there the wife of Balaram felt labour pain and delivered a male child. Balaram could somehow save the child and reached Calcutta.

The name of this child, who was born in such an unusually helpless condition and in acute poverty, was Ramdulal. Ramdulal lost his parents in his childhood. He had no shelter and no money. One day he with his younger sister went to his maternal grandfather Ramsundar Biswas for shelter. But his grandfather was also very poor and had to raise his family even by begging from others. Ramdulal’s grandmother was compelled to work as a cook in the family of Madanmohan Datta-a business man. Ramdulal had to live in this family. It goes without saying that all of them passed their days with single meal a day and sometimes that was also difficult to manage. So after some days his grandmother took him to Madanmohan Datta. Madanmohan gave him shelter in his house. Ramdulal worked in the house as a servant and got the opportunity to study under the private tutor who taught the children of Madanmohan. At that time the students didn’t have slate or paper to write on. They used leaves of banana and palm trees for writing. But for Ramdulal it was also difficult to buy or manage the leaves. So he took the used leaves of his master’s children, washed them in the water of holy river of Ganga and dried them to write on. With utmost sincerity and industry Ramdulal learnt to read and write Bengali in a short time. He also learnt to speak in English . He always thought of giving some comfort to his grandmother who lived in utter poverty. So after acquiring some basic education he started working as an apprentice in the office of Madanmohan. After sometime Madanmohan, finding his industriousness, and his efficiency, employed him to collect money from the bills of his business. His salary was fixed as Rs 5. It was a very difficult and laborious job. But Ramdulal worked with heart and soul for his master. Now Madanmohan became very satisfied with his performance. So he thought of giving him a greater responsibility. He asked him to collect bill money from a person of the English army in Dum Dum. I have already said that though Dum Dum was not far from Calcutta but the place was covered with forests and it was a habitat of dreaded dacoits. There was no means of transport. One had to walk all through to reach Calcutta from Dum Dum. This time Ramdulal collected Rs 5000 in cash and started for Calcutta in the evening. It was unthinkable for an individual to cross that jungle at night. After some time he thought of taking shelter in a house on the way. But after a second thought he changed his decision as he thought that it might lead him to a dacoit’s house. So he put off all his clothes and became naked to wear an appearance of a fakir. Then he hid the bag of the money in the hollow of a banyan tree hidden behind some aerial roots of the tree. Then he sat beneath the tree. After some time he heard some persons talking among them and gradually they seemed to coming towards him. Ramdulal instantaneously understood that the people were dacoits. So he closed his eyes pretending to meditating in that lonely place. Ramdulal was right. They were really dacoits. They stopped near Ramdulal and asked him who he was. Ramdulal opened his eyes and laughed loudly. The dacoits felt as Ramdulal wanted them to feel about him –an abnormal fakir. So they went off. In the morning Ramdulal started for Calcutta and reached his master’s house.

Madanmohan became very pleased with him and promoted him for a more responsible job as a manger of the department that oversaw the job concerning shipping. His salary was doubled at Rs 10. He had been saving regularly from his salary of Rs 5 and invested the amount in a small timber business. Whatever he had earned from this investment he gave it to his grandmother. After some time Ramdulal acquired some knowledge about ships and the related business. He visited the office of Tala-sahib where there were biddings for sunken ships in auctions. He acquired sound knowledge about the values of these ships and the goods they contained. One day Madanmohan sent him with Rs 14,000 to bid for one ship. But auction was over before Ramdulal reached the place. But there was another ship which had sunk in the mouth of the river Ganga and biddings were going on the ship. Ramdulal had some idea about the ship earkier. So Ramdulal made a bid of Rs 14,000 for the ship. He won and bought it. After a short while an Englishman arrived who had had an intention to bid for that particular ship Ramdulal bought. The Englishman asked him to sell the ship to him for Rs 14,000. When Ramdulal refused he threatened Ramdulal with dire consequences if he did not sell. But Ramdulal did not budge under his threat. So the Englishman began to bargain with Ramdulal. At last after much bargaining, the Englishman agreed to offer Rs 100,000. Ramdulal went home and gave his master the entire amount of one hundred thousand and told him how he got it. Ramdulal could easily hide the affair from his master to appropriate the money for his own use. But he was a different kind of man and was honest to his core. Madanmohan was spellbound at the instance of such honesty of a young man who was a servant for Rs 10. It took him some time to come to sense to speak to him. But when he spoke he told Ramdulal “I have no right for this amount which God has given to you for your honesty and trustworthiness”. He only took Rs 14,000 and returned the balance to Ramdulal.

Ramdulal then started business with this money. He earned much money from his business and gradually spread his business in various fields. After some years he bought four ships and started business with the American business world. At that time he was known as the Rothschild of Bengal in American business circle and he was much respected by them. In recognition of his service one Salem (a port near Boston) house dealing with Ramdulal named one of their ships ‘Ramdulal De’ which made several voyages from Salem to Calcutta. With his innate acumen and instincts in business matters Ramdulal became the biggest businessman in all wholesale businesses of Bengal. He became the head of business confederation of Bengal.

In spite of all his wealth and position Ramdulal De (Sarkar) remained the same person without any pride. He was the symbol of true humility. He never forgot Madanmohan. He loved to remain as a servant of Madanmohan. Even when he was regarded the richest businessman of Bengal (perhaps of India) he visited his master every month. With his modest and most ordinary clothes as suited to a servant of Rs 10, he would enter the house of Madanmohan leaving behind his footwear outside the house as was the custom of servants at that time and prostrated before him with his deep respect. Before leaving the house he would beg his monthly salary of Rs 10 from his master. He took it as a blessing from his master.

He established a guesthouse in Belgachhia in north Calcutta for the poor. One thousand poor people ate there everyday. He donated Rs 100,000 in the famine fund of Madras. None –who came to him for help never returned empty handed. He donated Rs 70 in his office everyday. He never became a witness in any legal battle. If any person came to him to stand witness for him in the court-he settled the case by giving out all the money concerning the dispute, to the aggrieved person.

Ramdulal De (Sarkar) died at the age of 73 in 1825 on the bank of the holy Ganga. He left behind him his two sons, Ashutosh (Satubabu), and Pramathanath (Latubabu) and a property worth Rs 123, 00,000. This was 200 years ago.

Ramdulal De (Sarkar) was a rare personality. He was a true Indian and appeared to be one of those we find in the great epic- the Ramayana.