Calcutta Babus Patrons Of Forgers

Anindita Mazumder

On September 20, 1827, the following advertisement was published in Calcutta Gazette. “Baboo Prankissen Holdar of Chinsurah begs to inform the Ladies and Gentlemen and the Public in General that he has commenced giving a Grand Nauch from this day that it will continue till the 29 Inst.Those Ladies and Gentlemen who have received the Invitation Cards are respectfully solicited to favour him with the company on the days mentioned above; and those to whom Invitation Tickets have not been sent (strangers to the Baboo) are also respectfully solicited to favour him with their company.

Baboo Prankissen Holdar further begs to say that every attention and respect will be paid to the Ladies and Gentlemen who will favour him with their company and that he will be happy to furnish them with tiffin, dinner, wines during their stay there (sic)”

Prankrishna Haldar was a Bengali grandee who was well known among Calcutta’s elite society– both British officials and wealthy natives – for organising grand parties and nautches at his mansions in Calcutta and Chinsurah. His extravagance and philanthropy earned him quite a name and captured the imagination of the people as evident from this popularsaying:
Dhanir madhye agraganya
Ramdoolal Sarkar
Babur madhye agraganya
Prankrishna Haldar.

Every year during Durga Puja, Prankrishna Haldar would spend a lakh of rupees on festivities, inviting dancers for his grand nautches. He gave out advertisements in newspapers to invite people to his parties. Several other anecdotes such as he rolled tobacco in 100-rupee currency notes and smoked them away, also did the rounds. To be fair to him he did not squander his fortune only in luxury. Samachar Darpan reported in 1827 that “the sweet speaking Brahmin, Babu Prankrishna Haldar of Chunchura has spent enormous money on manufacturing medicines for various ailments and is providing cure for the poor and destitute by distributing them free of cost.”

Then one day (1829) Calcutta’selite society was shocked to learnthat he had been arrested for forginggovernment promissory notes andcheating the public. He was accusedof obtaining some 60 lakhs of rupeeson false security, issued in the nameof the East India Company from small merchants who faced ruin when it was found that the government certificates they had bought were fake.The forgery was traced to Haldar. It was said he had started forging notes in an underground room in his house at Chinsurah. Perhaps, his extravagant ways had led him astray. He was sentenced to transportation for seven years in the penal settlement on the Prince of Wales Island. The sympathy of the public towards him despite his fall is evident the way newspapers described the case as a cause of “melancholy” and “warningly instructive” to others.

There was another interesting twist to this tale. While the trial was going on the Chief Justice of Supreme Court was flooded by petitions from leading citizens, including Englishmen, pleading on Haldar’s behalf. Even those in the jury petitioned in his favour. They pleaded that Prankrishna Haldar should be mercifully considered because of his status in society; wealth and education while orthodox Hindus petitioned that Brahmins could not be treated like others. But the Chief Justice refused to entertain such pleas.

Meanwhile, Omachurn Banurjee, a friend of Prankrishna Haldar “took out of his hands the sum of about Rs 1,00,000 with the declared intention of spending it in bribing the judges and the jury to decide in his favour.”But once his hopes of a lenient sentence were dashed, Prankrishna suspected he had been deceived by his friend. He tried to recover the sum and complained to the police. A warrant of seizure was issued against Omachurn Banurjee who promptly absconded. But he was apprehended in Jorasanko while he tried to slip past in a palanquin, disguised as a woman. Although the case was referred to Supreme Court, a respectable European secured Omachurn’s release after furnishing security.

After his conviction, Haldar’s assets were auctioned off by Mackenzie, Lyall & Company on July 31, 1829. He owned several properties in Calcutta and Chinsurah. A total of 15 properties were auctioned, eight in Calcutta, six in Chinsurah and one in Chandannagore, including a three storey house on Hare Street. He had another house on Russell Street, two more properties at the crossing of Park Street-Chowringhee. In addition he had properties at Jorasanko, Sutanuti, Khiddirpore and a garden at Beniapukur.

Meanwhile, Prankrishna had mortgaged his palatial mansion (it had belonged to French adventurer, General Perron) on the banks of river Hooghly at Chinsurah to Prankrishna Sil who later sold it to Hooghly College authorities for Rs 20,000 rupees. In 1836, Prankrishna returned to Calcutta after completing his sentence. His son, raised objection to the sale saying it was not part of the agreement with the Sils. The matter was settled after payment of Rs 2,000 to the Haldars. Its alumni included famous Bengali novelist, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay who studied in the early 1850s as well as Dwijendralal Ray and UN Brahmachari. Later, the college was renamed as Hooghly Mohsin College.

Even after being sentenced, people continued to talk about his charitable work. “The eminent philanthropist Babu Prankrishna Haldar built a bridge over river Saraswati in the village Tribeni in Hooghly which helped people from outside to come and bathe in the river,” read a letter published in Samachar Darpan, February 6, 1836.

Prankrishna’s brother, Nilmani Haldar was also sentenced to rigorous imprisonment for aiding and abetting his brother. Though Prankrishna’s name has vanished, a lane which branches out of SN Banerjee Road is still called Nilmani Haldar Lane. However, Prankrishna inspired the character of Neel Rattan Halder, the Raja of Raskhali in the Ibis Trilogy by novelist Amitava Ghosh and has been immortalised forever in literature.

Prankrishna Haldar was not the only Babu accused of forgery. Raja Baidyanath Ray of Posta Raj family was also accused of forging promissory notes and securities issued in the name of East India Company. He too, was close to the British, particularly Lord Amherst, the governor-general. He organised extravagant entertainments and among his fellow countrymen he was known for philanthropy particularly for the spread of female education. His protégé, Rajkishore Dutta had established Bank of India in 1828 and flooded the market with fake promissory notes which were forged at his office premises in Radhabazar. However, Ray was acquitted in the Supreme Court as he was considered a “gullible associate” and even a victim of Dutta.

Indians with their long history of calligraphy could forge these notes with such mastery that even those who signed the documents could not vouch that the signature was forged. But, before we pass moral judge mention the “corruptible” character of Indians as British were wont to, let us not forget the instance of Robert Clive who forged the signature of Admiral Watson to deceive Oomichand with a fake treaty prior to the Battle of Plassey.