A nagar named after him

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By Alamohan Das, one of the leading industrialists of Howrah, had left behind a huge legacy that his successors could not keep, says Anupam Mukherjee
  • Published 16.05.14
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Dasnagar in central Howrah gets its name from one of the leading industrialists and philanthropists of Howrah, Alamohan Das. He was given the sobriquet of Karamvir by none other than Acharya Prafulla Chandra Roy, when he came to inaugurate Das’s Bharat Jute Mill. His is a real life rags to riches story as a young infant who came back to life from the brink of death, fought poverty and bad fortune to rise to be one of Bengal’s revered names.

But the most intriguing story is how Alamohan Das got his name. He was born Surendra Mohan Das in Khila-Baruipur village under Amta Police Station in 1301 of the Bengali calendar to a middle-class peasant family. When he was just two, he fell violently ill and the local kaviraj could not cure him. His condition deteriorated and one day the relatives took the boy to the burning ghat thinking he was dead. His youngest paternal uncle suddenly noticed that Surendra Mohan’s eyelids were moving, showing signs of life and the child was brought back home. Everyone, including the old grandmother, started calling the child, Ela chele (lifeless boy). The name later became Ala and Surendra Mohan became Alamohan.

As he grew up, Alamohan started going to the village primary school. An epidemic killed his entire family, leaving his parents and a few others. However, Alamohan’s father, Gopimohan also contracted the disease and his mother, Birajmoyee, had to sell everything including land, utensils and other household items to cure her husband. Although Gopimohan recovered, the family was in dire straits by then. Alamohan was almost eight years old then and refused to accompany his parents to his paternal uncle’s home in Calcutta.

While staying alone at his ancestral home, Alamohan one day discovered a defaced bell metal pitcher in one corner of the room. Mice had heaped soil over the pot which is why it did not attract any one’s attention. Inside the pitcher, there were a huge number of old coins that had been saved by his predecessors. Once his parents came to know of this, they immediately returned to their old house. His father again established a small business while Alamohan was asked to start studying again.

Alamohan, however, did not want to study. He reached Ratikanta Dey’s house at 11, Galib Street in Calcutta. This was a shop of paddy and rice grains. Alamohan’s struggle started from here. He would carry a huge jute sack on his head and would sell the grains from morning till evening. He spent days and nights on the streets of Calcutta. In the process, Alamohan became a skilled salesman and soon started his own shop of rice grains and relocated to 82, Cornwallis Street at Sikdarbagan. His business flourished and he started hiring people.

Handicapped by his lack of education, Alamohan embarked on a journey of self education and started reading avidly. He read Tagore, Bankim Chandra, who shaped his mind and at the same time he was stirred by the Swadeshi movement that was spreading all around the country. He wanted to do his bit for his country by eradicating poverty and providing employment to his countrymen. “His motto in life was different from others because he believed that the people of Bengal should do business instead of working for someone else. Alamohan, whom we called Jethu, would always employ Bengali staff in his ventures,” said Parthasarathi Chowdhury, an old resident of Dasnagar closely associated with the family.

Today’s Chitra cinema hall was at that time a factory named Anandamoyee Iron Works in front of which Alamohan would sell his rice grains during lunch break. He came to know PN Dutta of Darjeepara, who inspired him to be an entrepreneur. From here, his struggle changed course and Alamohan’s dream started taking shape. Alamohan would visit Dutta’s factory where he met Sikhar Chandra Hazra, who was in-charge of an acid factory also owned by Dutta. Regular interactions with Hazra gave Alamohan confidence. He wanted to start a factory with machines. Around 1918, Alamohan again shifted from Cornwallis Street and moved to 64, Khurut Road in Howrah. By then, he had already employed 20 people at his shop.

At Howrah, Alamohan first started The Howrah Chemical Works along with Sikhar Hazra, who left his job to help Alamohan set up his business. They were producing acid in the factory that emitted a foul smell. Soon Das had to shift his factory to Makardah Road, Shanpur. After this Alamohan’s business operations gained from strength to strength as he started diversifying. He soon set up Bengal Weighing Scales that became a reputed name across the country. His next venture was Paul’s Engineering Works, where textile machines, printing machines, lathes and drills were manufactured. In 1937, Alamohan started Bharat Jute Mill that was inaugurated by Acharya Prafulla Chandra Roy. In 1938 Das purchased 1,000 bigha of land where he started The India Machinery and Company, merging Bengal Scales, Paul’s Engineering Works and Atlas Weigh Bridge that belonged to Rajanikanta Paul. “India Machinery was a huge success,” said Parthasarathi. Das Brothers was opened on Strand Road, which was a managing agency for import and export of materials and machines produced in his own factory.

After achieving financial stability around 1940, Alamohan started Howrah Insurance Company in 1941, Asia Drug Co in 1942 and also Das Sugar Co. The India Steam Navigation Co was established in 1945 followed by Arati Cotton Mills in 1946.

Alamohan Das was an example of a remarkable entrepreneur not only in Bengal but across the country. However, there were some ventures that failed miserably. Das started a private bank, Das Bank which had 12 to 14 branches across Bengal. It, however, did not run as most of the branches were located in present day Bangladesh which Alamohan could not control after the Partition. The plot where St Thomas School, Dasnagar is now located, was earmarked for a nursing home which never saw the light of day. He had also tried to establish a tea business but that, too, was not successful. “Jethu was forced to flee to Rangoon for some time to escape from the British. He was supporting the Swadeshi movement at that time,” said Parthasarathi. In 1952, Das also stood for the first Assembly Elections from Amta North constituency and was elected to the West Bengal Legislative Assembly.

Dasnagar was like his zamindari as Alamohan Das enjoyed the status of none less than a king. However, he was a simple man who was ready to help anyone in need. “Jethu would personally enquire after his workers and their families. He would take care of his workers’ families. He personally distributed fish caught from the family ponds around Dasnagar,” said Parthasarathi.

The palatial house adjoining the Dasnagar Chapala Devi High School is now the residence of the family of Alamohan Das. Chandra Kumar Das, 71, and Ravi Kumar Das, 75, the two surviving sons of Alamohan, have never attained success like their father. Much of the business empire that was established by Alamohan Das, have been sold out. Bharat Jute Mill is now owned by West Bengal Agro Industries Corporation, Arati Cotton Mills is now run by National Textile Corporation (NTC), Asia Drug was sold to National Tool Room.

Arindam Chowdhury, son of Bharati Chowdhury, Alamohan’s fourth daughter said, “Most of the family members had tried to follow the footsteps of Alamohan Das, however, no one has managed to rise to the level of my grandfather.”