Harilal & Sons by Sujit Saraf Speaking Tiger Books
This skilfully crafted novel revolves around Harilal Tibrewal, a Marwari boy who leaves the deserts of his native Rajasthan to seek his fortune in ‘Kalkatta’, the city of dreams in 19th-century colonial India. While India’s freedom movement, the Partition of Bengal and World War II unfold in the backdrop, Harilal and his descendants spread, start businesses, suffer losses and gains, marry, produce children, and die. Based upon the author’s own family history, Harilal’s story imaginatively fills in the gaps in the dry accounts of history. We learn why and how clusters of people from Rajasthan settled in every part of the country, retained their unique culture and customs while capably managing shops and businesses all over India for generations. A strong and fascinating story with convincing characters, set against an expansive historical and geographic backdrop, this is the perfect read.
The book throws light upon the indomitable Marwari spirit of enterprise. “Everything made by Raamji can be bought and sold if a bania knows how to price it,” says the street-smart teenager and Harilal’s saala, Janardhan. “Like rain, urine was made by Raamji, so it can be sold.” A quintessential Marwari, Janardhan adapts as he works at various ways to make money, transforming into English-spouting Johnny when he strikes deals for sahib Andrew Yule. The Marwari is adept at making the best use of money. Even religious sanction can be bought for a price. “A rupee would do the trick — the Shastras had a way of bending to one’s will at the glimpse of silver.”
Bargaining is a vital skill, and thrift is valued. “Even a paisa saved in this manner was a paisa that could be better spent elsewhere.” When teenaged Hari receives news from home of the birth of his first son, prudence overcomes his sense of love and excitement. “They should not have wasted a full rupee on a telegram.”
“Words meant different things to different people, while numbers were truthful. One bowed to context, the other only to the truth.” Hari values this lesson taught by his master in early childhood. “The name does not matter, the commissions do.”
Ultimately, a Marwari man with many sons must find shops to settle them with. It is this urge to set up a business of one’s own, to be one’s own master that makes young Marwari boys like Harilal to leave the parched deserts of their native Rajasthan to seek their fortunes in the fertile, prosperous distant lands of ‘Disavar.’ Harilal, and later his son Tribhuban, leave home alone at the tender ages of 12 and 11 respectively, to seek their fortunes in distant lands. This amazing spirit seems even more impressive when compared with today’s Indian children, who usually study and grow up under the care of their parents until well into their 20s.
The characters are well delineated and convincing. Hari’s father, his successive wives, and his many children sport unique traits and mindsets. Harilal himself is multifaceted. Stoic discipline rules Harilal as he copes with emotional upheavals. As his wife Parameshwari’s funeral takes place, he wonders about her soul, which nothing can destroy. In his sorrow at her untimely death, he wonders: “What use did a bania have for a soul at all? Buy cheap and sell dear, Master Bholaram had said. What else was there to existence, aside from stock that could be touched and felt and smelt and bought and sold, and what remained when it had been taken away?” With ingrained stoicism, Harilal knows that a man does not grieve like a child. Life must go on. As he watches his 21-year-old wife’s funeral pyre, he gets the idea of setting up a jute press.
Yet, Harilal is capable of tender and intimate moments with his first wife Parameshwari, and his affection for each of his children adapts to their individual personalities. He can stand by a friend and love him, just as he can be strict in self-control. In difficult times, he gifts a sack of rice to a needy stranger, the Nawab of Bogra’s driver, while taking care to hide the tears in his eyes. His love for Parameshwari transcends her death. When his father manages to place Hari into a second marriage against his wishes, Hari accepts his father’s will with stoicism. He does his duty while retaining Parameshwari’s memory in his heart. In ripe old age, Harilal orders scenes from his happiest moments with Parameshwari to be painted on his bedroom walls in his new haveli.
Life is precarious, with famines and riots in the wake of Partition. Yet the story is livened by occasional touches of gentle humour. Harilal’s perspective on World War II will make you smile. “If it was a dispute over rates, surely the sahibs were sufficiently good banias to resolve it themselves. What turn of events had caused Raamji to trap a poor bania underground so he could be burnt to cinders in a quarrel between sahibs?”
The narrative flows smoothly, and awkward passages are rare. The older and wiser Hemraj’s conversations with Hari seem stilted, as they board overcrowded trains from Rajasthan to ‘Kalkatta’. The artificial dialogues here obviously serve to inform readers of the facts and the backdrop of the story. Overall, this is a thoroughly satisfying read on multiple levels.
This review is published in Sunday herald