To a teenage rickshaw-puller in colonial Kolkata, building a fortune out of power plants and jute factories, and owning a seafaring ship, would have sounded like a daydream.
For Ranada Prasad Shaha, hardship served as the building blocks of an empire he was going to build decades later.
Like George Soros, who worked as a railway porter and a waiter during his student years in London, Prasad, a Bengali youth from Tangail at the early years of the previous century, rose to prominence and ended up being a legendary philanthropist.
“He dedicated his entire life,” says Rajiv Shaha, Ranada’s grandson and Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Ranada Prasad Shaha University, “to humanitarian service, donating almost everything to charity and in establishing welfare organizations.”
Along with other family members, Rajiv Shaha works to preserve his grandfather’s legacy.
Rajiv recalled that his mother, grandmother and other relatives would always talk about Ranada’s kind-heartedness and larger than life persona.
“I was a toddler when my grandfather and father were taken away in 1971, before being murdered. Their absence created a hollow in our lives that can’t be replaced. Words can’t express how proud we are of them,” said Rajiv.
Born on November 15, 1896 in Mirzapur, Tangail, Ranada’s life was a whirlwind of struggles. At a tender age of seven, he lost his mother to tetanus. His father remarried and Ranada spent his childhood in sorrow and poverty.
Ranada Prasad was of a different temperament. When he was a teenager, he fled to Kolkata where he worked as a day laborer, rickshaw puller and even as a hawker. He was also jailed a few times for taking part in the Swadeshi Andalan which was a part of the Indian Independence movement.
He served in the First World War after he joined the Bengal Ambulance Corps. He received a medal from King George the Fifth for his dedicated services. After retiring from the army he became a railway ticket collector.
He kept on working diligently and in 1931 he began a coal business. Eventually, he ventured into leather and shipping business and amassed enough fortunes to buy three powerhouses and a jute company. He was the owner of a ship named ‘Bengal River’ and had a company called The Bengal River Service Company.
He never forgot how his mother Kumudini Devi had suffered due to lack of proper medical care so in 1938 he built Kumudini hospital in Tangail to honor her. He also provided financial assistance to the maternity ward of Dhaka’s Combined Military Hospital (CMH).
Kumudini hospital has now grown into Kumudini Women’s Medical College and Kumudini Nursing Institute.
In 1940, a time when women’s education was no less than a dream, he built Bharateswari Bidyapith (later renamed to Bharateswari Homes) for female students in Mirzapur, Tangail. What began with five students is now one of the best educational institutions in the country. He also named a college after his father in Manikganj.
The Kumudini Welfare Trust of Bengal (BD) Ltd. was established by Ranada Prasad Shaha in 1947 with the sole mission to ease the distress of the poor and the unfortunate in the society.
Ranada Prasad continued to take up humanitarian causes for as long as he lived. During the Bengal Famine in the 1950s, he donated an astounding three lac to the Red Cross Society. During the time he opened 250 community kitchens to provide free meals to the poor.
He was a visionary and devoted his life to serving his country. He had plans to do much more but the Pakistani Army put a stop to all that in May 1971 when they abducted him along with his son Bhavani Prasad Shaha. Their bodies were never found.
When he was alive he was honored with the title of Rai Bahadur for his service to the British Empire. In 1978 he was posthumously awarded the Swadhinata Padak, the highest state award of Bangladesh.
Ranada witnessed many highs and went from rags to riches. Yet he never forgot his roots and ensured that his home town Mirzapur had one of the best medical and educational facilities.
Ranada Prasad Shaha was a man extraordinaire. He may not be with us today but he will forever live through his works.