A hundred years ago, Guwahati city looked a lot different than what we see before us now. No doubt, a lot of establishments that were running back then started vanishing over the years. Some died out because of tough competition and others simply couldn’t secure a strong customer base to keep the business afloat. Even though most of the old establishments have shut down, there are a few iconic establishments that continue to thrive even today. One such establishment is, KB Banerjee and Sons, also known as Kunja Thakur’s shop.
Hailing from Madhyapara village in Vikrampur, Dhaka, Kunja Behari Banerjee was born to an ordinary family. He most likely came to Assam in the early 1870s to search for his maternal uncle, Aditya Chatterjee. His uncle, at that time, used to run a small grocery shop near the riverside at Fancy Bazaar. When Kunja met his mama (uncle) in Guwahati, the latter insisted that Kunja look after the shop for a while. His uncle wanted to take a break and visit his home in Dhaka. The young Kunja agreed to look after the management temporarily but he couldn’t have imagined that his uncle would never return to Guwahati.
After years passed, Kunja grew impatient and planned to abandon the business in order to go back to his ancestral home. This was when Srimanta Sen, a leading citizen at that time, convinced him to stay back.
Around the 1880s, Kunja Thakur started taking the business seriously. Gradually, he expanded the grocery business. With his foresight and hard work, the little shop transformed into the most exclusive retail shop in the city. Starting from ingredients for ayurvedic medicines like boira, silikha, amlakhi to honey, puja items, and grocery items from cumin to custard, it was all available at Kunja Thakur’s shop.
Kunja Thakur was a man with a vision which is why he decided to develop his business beyond grocery. Back in the day, when the Collector (Deputy Commissioner now) of Guwahati started issuing trade licenses of opium for lower Assam (free trade of opium was prohibited by the British government), Kunja Thakur put in a bid and succeeded in getting a permit for retail distribution of opium. That was a turning point for him and his business. He became the goladar (stockist) of opium and within a short span of time, he established a chain of close to 32 shops in different parts of lower Assam. These were mainly retail outlets of opium.
While villagers were the main clients of Kunjababu’s retail outlets; the grocery shop at Fancy Bazaar served the middle class and the elite residing in the city. His shop, popularly known as Kunja Thakurar Dukan, became a trademark of good quality. A red khata (accounts book) maintained in the shop till a decade back, contained a huge list of monthly clients which included many celebrated personalities namely Gopinath Bardoloi, Tarun Ram Phukan, Kali Charan Sen, Nao Gosain Kumudeswar Goswami, Guru Prasad Baruah, and many others.
Kunja Thakur amassed a huge fortune during his lifetime and accumulated hundreds of acres of land as well. There was a time when street vendors at Fancy Bazaar would stand in reverence every time Kunja Thakur’s phaeton passed by. Towards the end of his life, he used to travel in a Morris 8 car bearing number plate ASK 129.
People respected him not only because he was a self-made man but also because he was a philanthropist. The crematorium at Bhutnath was established on a plot of land donated by Kunja Thakur. He also made generous donations towards Gauhati Harisabha, Kamrup Academy, Bengali School, Fancy Bazaar Puja Samiti and other social institutions.
Kunja Thakur’s Shop, located at the heart of Fancy Bazaar, survived three major earthquakes and two major fires. The shop still serves everything from ayurvedic ingredients to groceries to the obscurest of items required for any kind of puja.
Till date, the sales are entered into the book of accounts. Ashwini Kalita, one of the oldest employees working in the shop shares that the shop is still run like it was in the olden days. ‘There is no cash counter. We sit in gaddis (cushions) here. We don’t have computers or any modern items in our shop.’
It is hard to imagine that such an establishment would be able to continue making a profit when shopping malls are sprouting up across the city like mushroom but the fact remains that Kunja Thakur’s shop is still going strong and will likely continue its success streak for many years to come.
By Nabarun Guha
This article was first published in Eclectic Northeast Feb 2018 issue