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Manmatha Nath Dutta: The Zamindar

Bibek Debroy is an economist and member of the NITI Aayog. He is the author of Mahabharata in 10 volumes
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On the road to uncover a name that haunts

There is a Manmatha Dutta Road in Calcutta. It is in the area known as Belgachia and connects Jessore Road with Tara Sankar Sarani. Towards the Tara Sankar Sarani end, a fork becomes Indra Biswas Road. Manmatha Dutta Road is a short road and there is nothing along the road to indicate who it was named after—no statute, no plaque. The road has been there for years, featuring in many Bengali short stories. The famous poet, Kazi Nazrul Islam (1899-1976), lived in Manmatha Dutta Road for some years and old-timers still point out his residence as a landmark. Typically, roads are named after famous or important people. There aren’t too many famous people named Manmatha Dutta. Towards the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, there were famous Bengalis with the same first name of Manmatha Nath—Manmatha Nath Ray Chowdhury and Manmatha Nath Gupta are instances, and there was more than one Manmatha Nath Ghosh. But Manmatha Nath Dutta was a rarity.

Mohun Bagan Athletic Club, the football team, had a glorious decade in the 1930s and towards the start of that decade, Dr Manmatha Dutta played for Mohun Bagan and captained it. But there is no logical reason why a road in Belgachia should be named after him. There was a freedom fighter named Manmatha Datta.

In the Andaman Cellular Jail, there are plaques that give the names of freedom fighters, decade-wise and region-wise. For the 1932-38 period, in the Bengal list, Manmatha Datta is numbered 190. That road in Belgachia is unlikely to be named after him either. Therefore, it is almost a certainty that this road is named after our Manmatha Nath Dutt.

Kolkata Municipal Corporation has a Road Renaming Committee, as do many other cities in the country. There is nothing in the municipal corporation’s records to indicate how this road came to be named Manmatha Datta Road. Indeed, the corporation’s records tell us that on 25th August, 1937, the proposal to name the stretch from the ‘projection of the Triangular Road extending from the end of Manmatha Dutt Road (note the spelling of Dutt), running parallel westwards also at the back of the Pareshnath Temple as Indra Biswas Road’, was approved and notified. Thus, in 1937, Manmatha Dutt Road already existed. By the way, Indra Biswas was a local zamindar (jamidar in Bengali) and the road was named after him as a mark of respect.

We need to understand how this part of Calcutta came to be developed. These were the northern suburbs. Today, Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) has almost 150 wards. The region that concerns us is a few geographically contiguous wards, say number 1 to 6. This Tala-Chitpur-Cossipore area was outside KMC’s purview till 1923, though from 1889, Chitpur and Cossipore were under a suburban municipality. That municipality wasn’t particularly active. Cossipore is now ward no. 1, Belgachia is ward no. 3 and Chitpur is ward no. six. If Manmatha Dutt Road was named before 1923, as it probably was (it certainly didn’t happen after 1937), it would have had nothing to do with naming or renaming by KMC.

Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose (born 1897) left his autobiography An Indian Pilgrim incomplete. Subhas Chandra Bose was the son of Prabhavati Dutt Bose and Janakinath Bose. In that unfinished autobiography, he wrote, ‘My father was descended from the Boses of Mahinagar, while my mother, Prabhabati (or rather, Prabhavati) belonged to the family of the Dutts of Hatkhola….as mentioned in the first chapter, my mother belonged to the family of the Dutts of Hatkhola, a northern quarter of Calcutta. In the early days of British rule, the Dutts were one of those families in Calcutta who attained a great deal of prominence by virtue of their wealth and their ability to adapt themselves to the new political order. As a consequence, they played a role among the neo-aristocracy of the day. My mother’s grandfather, Kashi Nath Dutt, broke away from the family and moved to Baranagore, a small town about six miles to the north of Calcutta, built a palatial house for himself and settled down there. He was a very well-educated man, a voracious reader and a friend of the students. He held a high administrative post in the firm of Messrs. Jardine, Skinner & Co., a British firm doing business in Calcutta. Both my mother’s father, Ganganarayan Dutt, and grandfather had a reputation for being wise in selecting their sons-in-law.’

On his mother’s side, Subhas Chandra Bose was thus descended from the Hatkhola Duttas and his maternal grandfather was named Kashi Nath Dutta. There is a road named Kashinath Dutta Road in Kolkata and it is in Cossipore, in ward number one. The Hatkhola Duttas are an old zamindar family and descendants have traced the roots of the family tree, or at least some of its branches, pretty far back, sometimes as far back as the 10th century CE. There are branches that have loose ends, the respective descendants haven’t bothered.

For our purposes, there was/is a branch in Nimtala Ghat Street. Strictly speaking, this is the area of Hatkhola, defined in a narrow geographical sense. There is a Madan Mohan Dutta Lane there, named after a descendant, and a famous puja is held annually. There was/is a branch in the Rambagan area of Kolkata, named after another descendant. There was/is a branch in the Chitpur/Baranagar area too. Kashi Nath Dutta Road is in Baranagar. Lest we forget, in the initial years, Mamatha Nath Dutt gave his address as Beadon Street or Nayan Chand Dutt Street. But later, such as in the 1904 Metaphysics book, his address shifted to Baranagar. What was the relationship between Kashi Nath Dutta and Manmatha Nath Dutt? I don’t know.

In Bengali, Jnanendra Kumar wrote a multi-volume collation titled vamsha-parichay. This translates in English as description of the lineages and is essentially a description of the lineages of zamindars. Published in the 1880s, this collation is extremely difficult to get hold of. I have only been able to get hold of a few fragmentary pages. In the seventeenth volume, I find a reference to Kashi Nath Dutta.

We are told he died at the relatively young age of 32 and that he was so generous that after he died, the citizens demanded a road in Tala be named Kashi Nath Dutta in his memory. The limited evidence suggests Manmatha Nath Dutt was also a zamindar from the Hatkhola Dutta family of Chitpur/Baranagar and the road in Belgachia was accordingly named after him. He was the Bhupati in Tagore’s novella. ‘Bhupati had inherited a lot of money and generous ancestral property, so it was quite natural if he didn’t bother to work at all…he had founded an elite English newspaper and that was how he decided to cope with the boredom that his riches and time, which was endlessly at his disposal, brought to him.’

In the Jnanendra Kumar’s collation, in the sixth volume, there is a stray reference to Manmatha Nath Dutt. We are told Manmatha Nath Dutt’s son was Lalbihari Dutt. It is by no means certain that the two Manmatha Nath Duttas are the same. But it is extremely likely that they were. How many Manmatha Nath Duttas from zamindar families were floating around?

There is a Bengali website known as abasara (leisure). It seems to have antecedents in an older version that was a monthly magazine, also known as Abasara. An old listing of Bengali magazines tells us the editor of abasara from 1314-17 was Nabakumara Dutt, from 1317 to 1321 it was Surenchandi Dutt, from 1321 to 1322 it was jointly Lalbihari Dutt and Sharacchandra Ghosh, and from 1322 to 1323 it was Sharachhandra Ghosh. Note that these are years as per the Bengali calendar. Therefore, 1314 is 1908 and 1323 is 1917.

Writing on the abasara website on 30th August, 2016, Dilip Das gave us an account of what the old Abasara was like. The first issue was printed in 1904 and the last issue was came out in 1917. Like Manmatha Nath Dutt, we know nothing about the first editor, Nabakumar Dutt. He died in 1912 and his son, Surenchandi Dutt took over. However, Surendchandi Dutt also died early, when he was only twenty-three years old. Therefore, in 1915, Surenchandi Dutt’s paternal uncle (his father’s younger brother), Lalbihari Dutt replaced him. And he was succeeded by Sharacchandra Ghosh, someone outside the family. In other words, Nabakumar Dutt was Manmatha Nath Dutt’s brother’s son and both paternal uncle and nephew died in the same year, 1912. That’s a bit of a coincidence.

Dilip Das makes a comment about this old magazine. It was not only neutral. It was indifferent to the events that went on, all around. It completely ignored them, especially stuff that was political. As we shall see later, this was also true of Manmatha Nath Dutt. The uncle/father wrote in English, the nephew/son wrote in Bengali. But they shared this trait.

(This is the third part of an essay on Manmatha Nath Dutt by Bibek Debroy)

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