A life by itself can mean anything. But through a fiction filter, it acquires this and that meaning. Harilal & Sons, by Sujit Saraf, is the chronicle of a Rajasthani businessman in the beginning of the 20th century.
Among other things, Saraf’s version of the story is about retaining your identity in the face of the changing society and economic imperatives. It is also about the differences between communities and regions within India, as also about caring for your family.
But most importantly, this is a memorial to Saraf’s grandfather, who is the original model for the protagonist, Harilal Tibrewal.
The story begins in a small town in Shekhawati. In 1899, the area is ravaged by drought. Harilal, then 11, decides he wants to join a famous Shekhawati-owned business firm in Calcutta. After a long, harrowing journey, he finds himself the youngest clerk in the company.
From this beginning, he painstakingly builds a business—no, businesses—as his family continues to grow. He moves to a small town in Bengal, now part of Bangladesh, and sets up a shop. All through, he remains true to the ‘dharma’ of a baniya—to raise a family, to buy low and sell high, and to see all events as opportunities to grow his business. The arid fields of Shekhawati remain in his memory, though he feels himself unable to go there.
As time passes, Harilal’s family grows—sons and daughters get married, grandchildren are born, and his businesses grow alongside. But no life can remain unaffected by the currents of political upheaval. The freedom movement, partition, communal riots, and the 1962 war all affect his family.
Saraf has researched and written this book over the years, and the effort shows on every page. The sprawling canvas captures the roots of the Marwari community, their work ethic, and their rise against the backdrop of a country in evolution.
The train ride, for example, is set in around 1900, Harilal’s first time in a train, and Saraf captures it over a dozen plus pages, evoking the long benches for seats, the coal blowing into passengers’ eyes, and the constant wonder of a new industrialised world.
The book maintains the focus on Harilal, showing the world from his viewpoint alone, and yet manages to convey its sweep. Saraf introduces typically Marwari words through context, making them easy to understand.
He doesn’t justify or explain the mindset—having children and growing business are Harilal’s priorities, and they become ours as we read. In the hands of a less experienced writer, this might become claustrophobic, but here it works well.
For quite some time, historical Indian fiction in English has relied on the accounts written by Englishmen of their time in India, leading to a limited perspective. Harilal & Sons is part of a newer wave which uses alternate sources—family oral tradition, in this case—to construct a more Indian narrative. May there be many more.