On November 25, 1901, a baby was born in Dhaka, two months premature. The young parents, frightened by the infant’s frailty, left the boy’s fate at the feet of Shri Hari (Lord Krishna). From that day on, he was known as Haridas Pal.
The name may tickle a few funny bones now, but then, 100 years ago, it was a fine name to have, as far as names go. And it seems to have worked as a talisman of sorts, because Haridas Pal is still very much alive, if not quite kicking, for his 102nd birthday.
The shadow lines of old Calcutta have it that Hari Pal was a wealthy zamindar, who later even had a lane named after him. To begin with, to call someone ‘Haridas Pal’ was simply a reference to grandeur. It later came to imply someone suffering delusions of grandeur. And then, through generations of use — or abuse — the pejorative slant stuck, and seemed only to get worse.
But one real Haridas Pal isn’t really bothered about this twist of tongue. For one, the usage is “a rather new one”, feels his family, and the gentleman’s hearing isn’t all it used to be, so he would fortunately miss any rude sniggers. And two, Haridas Pal has a lot to say for himself, and he could, in all honesty, be called… well… Haridas Pal.
The grand old man left his Dhaka home in 1947, on the eve of Independence. The only son had quite an inheritance to his name, and had himself set up a “jewellery and banker valuation” business. But in 1950, his wife Swarnamoyee Debi died at age 32, leaving behind seven children. “After that, my father was too mentally shaken to run a business dealing with such valuable items,” recounts his eldest son, Rabindra Kumar, at their Jadavpur residence on Tuesday.
Though the centenarian can still read and write, he speaks few words, and only to those closest to him. His knees are causing problems of late, and for the past few months, he can hardly walk. But 53 years ago, Haridas Pal was quick to find his feet. The advice of a friend led him to start a new business: Jadavpur’s famous Hindusthan Sweets. There were rough times ahead. “I remember my father saying that business was not doing well, and that he was earning only Rs 8 to 10 a day. He also said that Rs 20 a day would see us through,” laughs the 65-year Rabindra Kumar.
Haridas Pal, hanging on But soon, business flourished, with six branches in the city and a reputation for innovation. The family is well aware of and unfazed by - the distortions to Haridas Pal's name. "Sometimes my friends will joke aro-und and use the phrase, and I will joke right back," smiles the proud son.
And it seems, to those close to him, a petty concern. The Pals have much to be thankful for. Long life seems to run in the family, as Haridas Pal's mother lived to 98. "On his 100th birthday, we organised a function at Madhu-sudan Mancha. Baba sat through the whole thing," recalls Rabindra Kumar.Though his body is letting out, Haridas Pal is hanging on. "How old am I today'" he asked his family before the big bash on Tuesday evening, surrounded by his children, his children's children and their children, too.