Book Review : Harilal & Sons by Sujit Saraf

It is the year 1899. In the north western corner of British India, the Chhappaniya famine stalks the desert region of Shekhavati. A despairing shopkeeper turns to his young son and says, ‘This land has nothing to offer us but sand dunes and khejra bushes.’ Soon after, twelve-year-old Harilal Tibrewal, recently married to eleven-year-old Parmeshwari, sets off, alone, for the densely populated plains of Bengal in eastern India—travelling on camelback and by bus, train and boat to arrive in Calcutta, two thousand kilometres away.

In his new novel, Sujit Saraf takes readers on an epic journey from Shekhavati in Rajasthan to the Calcutta of the early twentieth century, to Bogra in East Bengal and to a village in Bihar in newly independent India. A sprawling, compulsively readable narrative, it follows the story of Harilal as he sets up Harilal and Sons, a shop selling jute, cotton, spices, rice, cigarettes and soap, that grows into a large enterprise. It is also the sweeping tale of his two wives and ever-burgeoning family of sons, daughters, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren—the two strands of family and business inextricably fused because a Marwari’s life is defined by what he ‘deals in’. The novel ends in 1972, as eighty-five-year-old Hari lies dying in the great mansion that he built but never actually lived in. Surrounded by his vast family he wonders why he is still so attached to them. Why has he not reached the third stage in life, the stage of detachment, that his schoolmaster had said he would?

Spanning seven decades of an era that saw great tumult in India and Bangladesh, Harilal and Sons is a wonderfully evocative, powerful and capacious narrative—overflowing with a profusion of characters, events and places—contained within the singular life of one man who ‘dealt in jute and grain’.

There have been endless number of books written about Indian post-colonial history from the perspectives of the British and occasionally the Bengalis. Mostly the Marwari community has been obscured out from these accounts. They have merely been present and never played any major role in securing independence for the country. Little has been written about them and hence the non-Marwari people were unaware of their counterparts’ sufferings and perils during the colonial rule of India. Sujit Saraf’s novel introduced a whole new perspective of the India that was when the British ruled and the India that remained after the “Sahibs” left, partitioned and chaotic.

The book traces the journey of Harilal Tibrewal, a twelve year old boy from Shekhavati, who leaves the land of Chhapaniya famine to travel to Disavar, the fertile lands of Bengal. A young boy with a bundle of responsibilities, we see Hariya grow gradually into a man, making the necessary mistakes along the way. His unfortunate encounters in Calcutta push him to travel to a less populated and more serene Bogra where Harilal settles down and embraces the Grihasthya stage of life. His family grows in size and despite ups and downs the business swells and prospers. He reminds his sons, time and again, the traits of a Baniya. His whole life is spent in nurturing and worrying about his ever-growing family and his dearer-than-life venture ‘Harilal & Sons’. The riots, the price surges and declines during the war and increasing doom of the Musalmans’ attacks shape the lives of the Marwari business community residing in Bangladesh.

Although there are many characters, the book is primarily about Hari, who resembles the entire community that travelled from the barren lands of West to the bountiful East in search of good business opportunities since it was considered back then that there was no dearth of earning options in Bengal. What strikes remarkable is how Saraf doesn’t attempt to justify the lives and ways of the Marwaris. The tale is narrated as it is and the readers are left to judge the life of Harilal Tibrewal.

The numerous accusations that are laid against Marwaris for looting Bengal and extracting profit out of everything are mentioned quite a few times throughout the book. Neither Hari nor any of his family members fought or protested against the British oppression but his contribution in the most unexpected and simplest ways are one to behold. His miserly ways did not stop him from helping those in need during the most difficult of times. The fondness for him grows in us and by the time we reach the last page, a sense of having lived an entire life passes over us. Such is the beauty of the author’s narration.

Much research and work has gone into the creation of this saga and the realistic descriptions of Bengal, Bogra, Bihar and Shekhavati are mere examples of that. The historical accuracy of this novel inspires the desire to read more about the British Raj and the events that occured during the early twentieth century.

Apart from being a few pages too long, this book is a brilliant piece and deserves to be read and known by all. If colonial and post-colonial fiction interests you and the size of a book doesn’t daunt you then this is a novel that you wouldn’t want to miss.

Publisher : Speaking Tiger

Pages : 528

Format : Paperback

Rating : 4.2 / 5

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