Kunja Thakur is a household name in Guwahati. Hailing
from an ordinary family in Madhyapara village of Vikrampur, Dhaka (now in
Bangladesh), Kunja Behari Banerjee, popularly known as Kunja Thakur, was
during his lifetime an institution by himself. By sheer dint of hard work,
trade acumen and vision, Banerjee built a business empire that spread over
many places of lower Assam. Located in the heart of Fancy Bazar, K B
Banerjee & Sons, commonly referred to as Kunja Thakuror dokan,
has since the early 19th century been a hub of business.
Kunja Behari Banerjee came to Assam sometime in the early
1870s in search of his maternal uncle Aditya Chatterjee, who was then
managing a small grocery shop near the Fancy Bazar riverside. Soon after
Chatterjee met his young nephew he insisted that Kunja look after the shop
while he made a short visit to his home in Dhaka. Kunja agreed, never
imagining for a moment that his stay would be longer than a few months.
But years passed and his uncle did not return. Kunja then
decided to abandon the business and go back in the “abode of Goddess
Kamakhya”. Young Kunja who had by then gained in experience decided to
listen to Sen, though he did not have the faintest clue that fortune was
smiling on him.
Kunja now took the business seriously. By the end of the
1880s he expanded the grocery business and elevated the shop to the most
exclusive retail shop in town.
From ingredients for ayurvedic medicine like boira,
silikha, amlakhi and hony, puja materials from camphor to almanac to
grocery items like cumin and custard - everything was available at Kunja
With extraordinary vision he developed the business
beyond grocery. When the Collector of Guwahati issued trade license for
opium for lower Assam (free trade of opium was prohibited by British
government), Kunja Thakur put his bid and succeeded n getting permit for its
retail distribution. That really turned the wheel of fortune towards him. He
became the goladar (stockist) of opium and within a short time
established a chain of about 32 shops (mainly retail outlets of opium) in
different parts of lower Assam.
While common men, particularly villagers, were the main
clients of opium, the Fancy Bazar shop attracted a fair share of the middle
class and elite of society. Kunja Thakur also became the supplier of
foodgrains to the Assam Bengal Railways and Trading Company workers when the
company was installing railway lines in different parts of Assam.
Kunja Thakur dokan
even today is synonymous with good
quality. Until a decade ago a red khata (notebook) was maintained in
the shop comprising at list of regular clients who paid for goods bought on
a monthly basis. Among them were Gopinath Bardoloi, Tarun Ram Phookun,
Kalicharan Sen, Nao Gosain Kumudeswar Goswami, Guru Prasad Baruah and
Kunja Thakur was married twice, and sired three sons -
Kedareshwar, Bhubaneshwar and Bireshwar - and a daughter. During his
lifetime he amassed a huge fortune and hundreds of acres of land. But at the
same time, Kunja Thakur was also a philanthropist. The crematorium (smasan)
at Bhutnath was established on land donated by him.
He also made generous donations towards the establishment
of Gauhati Harisabha, Kamrup Academy, Bengali School, Fancy Bazar Puja
samiti and many other institutions.
Interestingly, though Kunja could neither speak nor
understand English, he maintained friendly relations with many of the
British officers in the town. The lingua franca was Hindi. Kunja
Thakur’s name is mentioned in the personal diary of A H W Bentinck,
erstwhile Deputy Commissioner of Kamrup who frequently visited his shop.
There was a time when Kunja Thakur commanded so much
respect that when his phaeton enter Fancy Bazar street vendors stood up in
reverence. Later, towards the end of his life, he traveled in a Morris *car
bearing registration number ASK 129. This enterprising businessman also had
a utensil shop at Maulavibazar in Dhaka.
In March 1914 at the age of 75 he went to Dhaka for a
visit where he passed away. But his legacy still remains in the town. K B
Banerjee & Sons has survived three major earthquakes and two major
fires, and continues to stock all kinds of provisions. And even now, the
shop’s sales are entered in its red book of accounts under the heads baje,
kirana and abgari. The only thing missing in the shop today is
ganja or afim (opium).