Free Press Journal

Harilal & Sons: A Novel- Review


Name: Harilal & Sons
Author: Sujit Saraf
Publisher: Speaking Tiger
Pages: 516
Price: Rs 699

ISBN: 978-93-86050-75-5

Publisher: Speaking Tiger

Welcome to colonial India. And hold onto your camels. Because your ride has just begun. As the sand dunes rise and fall, you’re sure to go through the crests and troughs in the circle of life. And if that’s not enough, you’re about to live the life of a Marwari boy-turned-Seth. Meet “Chiranjeev Harilal Tibrewal, son of Duli Chand Tibrewal from Rampura – grown up eating Shekhavati bajra. And never been sick a day of his life.” And now, he’s off to make a name in Disavar.

The book starts with a 12-year old Harilal who scratches up a plot to leave behind his famine-stricken village and go East, into the depths of Kolkatta’s prosperity. Sensing the need to get his responsibilities out of the way, Duli Chandji arranges for his only son’s wedding with Parmeshwari, the 11-year old bride as the dreaded Chappaniya looms over their spirits. And then, just like that, Harilal paves a path to Kolkatta. He reminds himself of his guru, Master Bholaram’s teachings and his father’s ways. A baniya from Shekhavati never wastes a paisa or a drop of water, lives on bajra, haggles his way through every deal, and never gives in to the comforts of life. But on reaching the land of plenty, he finds himself immersed in manipulating Indra Bhagwan, placing bets on rainfall, acquiring jute bales for Yule sahib and relinquishing himself to the temptations of pineapple juices and numerous cups of tea. But the day his illegal activities come into light – the English sahibs come for him, and Khemchand Biyani (the chief munim of his prestigious firm, Daulatram Gulbchand) sends him away with a second chance to Bogra.

Sujit Saraf has written this biopic keeping his grandfather Hiralal in mind. It’s told simply, giving you a first-hand account of Kolkatta’s colonial days. The detailed Hinglish descriptions of Bogra, Watsonganj, Rampura and of course erstwhile Kolkata paint a defined picture of the times back then. It makes you wonder what it would be to live in the days and times of Harilal & Sons. The success story of a 12-year old boy, seizing the opportunities and overcoming the hurdles that life presents, keeps you gripped right until the end. You feel for Harilal as you would for your own grandfather as the book progresses. But by showing us the world through Harilal’s eyes, the author also throws open a window into the mind of a conservative Hindu Marwari of those times. The God-fearing man thinks of “Raamji” and connects his wish, actions, wrath and love to every single event in his life. Through weddings, deaths, illnesses and more, the people of that era believed in the language of religion alone. Where doctors should have been summoned, soothsayers were beckoned. A qualified doctor’s practice was not trustworthy just because he had Bengali blood running through his veins and the caste system was thriving. Which only made you think that racism was a way of life. Harilal’s son Tribhuvan, was the only person through the book who spoke with the voice of reason. He said that the communities could easily live in harmony, it was the people in the shadows who provoked them to act the way they did. Even though Harilal did not understand most of what Tribhuvan had to say, he was proud of him. He was the only barrister in his family, one who was fluent in English and Harilal didn’t lose an opportunity to talk about him wherever he went. Even in the split-second introduction to Gandhiji, he introduced himself and added that his son was a barrister in Kolkatta. It showed that although he had a traditional mindset, some part of him longed for progress.

Saraf’s biopic illustrates that India’s past has been rife with perfunctory customs that are confused with traditions. Whether it is child marriage, untouchability or patriarchy, it shows the double-standards the men had in those days. Harilal himself was young enough to re-marry but when Tribhuvan presented the idea of his daughter-in-law to do the same, he wouldn’t hear of it. The only role that women had was to produce children and cook meals. A widow without a family was nothing more than a servant. But then, as the book progressed, so did the women in it. They found their voice, at first indirectly and eventually: boldly.

The book also stresses on the welfare of cows and their protection. Harilal adopts a goshala and often talks about the docile, silent animals. He cringes when they’re being taken to the slaughter houses and even pleads to the Nawab of Bogra to stop eating beef and instead use the milk, cow dung and urine of the cows to maximize on these poor beasts. And as he flees Bogra at the time of the partition, he lets the cows loose in the Nawab’s palace, only to find them swimming towards the slaughter houses themselves. He leaves them to their fate and that brings us to the current affairs. The fact is that aversion to beef and its eaters is an age-old idea. Over the years, we grew out of it to respect one another based on who we are and not what we ate. We were slowly but surely bridging the gap between the communities. And it sure did take many Tribhuvans for us to emerge from petty misunderstandings and assumptions. But then, we stopped.

All in all, Harilal & Sons is a book that doesn’t just take you back in time, it allows you to relish the present and think in the future. We could make the same mistakes that our ancestors once made, or we could learn from them and rise above. The choice is ours.