Haridas Pal, the name Mamata Banerjee has called Narendra Modi, apparently derives from a man born into a poor family in Rishra of Hooghly district in 1876, and who went on to become rich. Others speak of a man of Bangladeshi origin who ruined himself in Kolkata.
No one is clear how the name became an expression of contempt, mockery or dismissal in popular Bengali vocabulary. Some scholars, in fact, are unsure if the expression is based on any real person’s name.
Rishra’s Haridas Pal was the son of Netaicharan Pal. He moved to Kolkata at age 16 and lived at Sova Bazar, initially in poverty, and worked at a goldsmith’s shop.
His lot changed when he inherited the property of his maternal uncle. He set up shops of glass and lanterns, opened businesses at Burrabazar that he expanded to Guwahati, and bought four palatial houses on Bankim Chatterjee Street. He set up a charitable trust and a school. He died at 57, apparently because of a kidney ailment.
The Kolkata Municipal Corporation in 1965 renamed College Lane, connecting Bankim Chatterjee Street and Mahatma Gandhi Road, as Haridas Pal Lane in 1965.
For some reason, others have turned the same name into a derogatory description. Some people use it for someone who has delusions of grandeur. Others broaden the definition to dismiss anyone they think of as worthless. But it is Mamata using the expression that upsets descendants of Haridas Pal the poor-man-turned-rich.
“Somehow my Dadu’s name has become an idiom but the way Mamata is using his name, it is derogatory,” Sumita Banerjee, Haridas’s great-granddaughter told The Indian Express, sitting at K K Pal Brothers, set up by Haridas close to Coffee House and Presidency College (now University) on Bankim Chatterjee Street.
Arpan Banerjee, Sumitra’s schoolteacher husband, said, “We will write to newspapers. Even knowledgeable people are writing about him, but they don’t know about his contribution to society.”
Gandhabanik Samaj of Kolkata, which represents Pal’s caste, too is aggrieved. “We are pained that the name of a person like Haridas Pal, who was such a great philanthropist, is being misused,” said Sanjay Dutta, secretary of the Samaj Trust.
Author Nabaneeta Dev Sen is not very sure whether this Haridas Pal was the same that has become an idiom. “There are names that have become idioms like Hari Ghosher Goaal (Hari Ghosh’s cowshed) when we refer to a person who gives shelter to the homeless at his house. There was indeed one Hari Ghosh at Bagbazaar in 19th century who did that,” she said.
According to another legend, there was also a Haridas Pal who came from Bangladesh in the 19th century and lived in Kolkata.
“I read a blog about a village in Bangaldesh named after him. It was called Haripur. Apparently, he was very wealthy but squandered all his wealth away in Kolkata,” said economist Bibek Debroy. The Bangladeshi blog, which briefly chronicles the history of Haripur village, has photographs of a crumbling old mansion with stained glass windows.
“Earlier, a reference to Haridas Pal probably suggested grandeur. But with time the implications changed,” Debroy says.
With inputs by Premankur Biswas