Harilal & Sons

February 28, 2017

It is the year 1899. In the northwestern 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 & 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 & 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’.

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