The Bania’s Eye View

Long reviled and caricatured by the city they have shaped, Calcutta’s Marwaris are humanised and demystified in Sujit Saraf’s novel.

Written by Samantak Das | Published:June 10, 2017 12:48 am
Harilal & Sons, Sujit Saraf, Speaking Tiger, Harilal & Sons summary, indian express, book review Harilal & Sons

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

“There are no Marwaris as such in Rajasthan; they only become Marwaris when they leave.” Thus writes Anne Hardgrove in her 2004 study, Community and Public Culture: the Marwaris in Calcutta, c. 1897-1997, the most detailed account of a people who have been integral to the birth, development, growth and continued life of the city of dubious joy, yet who still remain strangely elusive when it comes to historical or sociological analysis and understanding. When talking of Calcutta’s cosmopolitanism, the Marwaris seldom get a look in, with Armenians, Baghdadi Jews, Anglo-Indians, Parsis, the Portuguese, the Dutch and the like hogging the limelight. Which is strange if one considers that Calcuttans live in buildings constructed with Marwari cement and steel, go to schools run by Marwari trusts, worship in temples built by Marwaris, still ride in Ambassador taxis made by a Marwari firm, watch movies produced by Marwaris, get treated (those who can afford it) in private hospitals run by Marwaris and gawp at the marvels of the cosmos in a planetarium built by Marwaris. Why, the book-loving Bengali wouldn’t even be able to read her Feluda or Byomkesh (or Lila Majumder or what have you) if it were not for the illumination provided by the electricity produced by a Marwari-owned firm… the list of Marwari contributions to the day-to-day life of Kolkata and Bengal is potentially endless.

Despite all this, the attitude of the Kolkata Bengali towards the Marwari remains friendly but slightly suspicious at best, and directly derogatory and abusive at worst. A typical case in point being the great nationalist scientist, Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray’s sneering remark that the Marwaris were “mere parasites” who do “not add a single farthing to the country’s wealth, but have become the chosen instruments for the draining away of the country’s wealth — the life-blood of the peasants —t o foreign lands” (in his autobiographical Life and Experiences of a Bengali Chemist, published in the early 1930s).

Sujit Saraf’s Harilal & Sons can be seen as an attempt to demystify the Marwari, to humanise him for those who subscribe to the old stereotypes about this “business caste” from the arid wastes of Rajasthan, who travelled across a subcontinent to make their home, and their fortunes, in what was for long India’s greatest trading centre. Inspired by his grandfather, Hiralal Saraf’s life (1880–1960), “a man whose travels epitomised the peregrinations of his community” (p 515), Sujit Saraf has spun a tale that goes beyond the merely personal. It maps the story of one man’s journey against the turbulent events of India’s journey — from colony to Independence via the horrors of Partition. In so doing, Saraf has given his readers not just a detailed, poignant, heartfelt portrait of a man (the eponymous Harilal Tibrewal), but also a bania’s eye view of the historical people, places and events that have gone into the creation of modern India.

Saraf starts his story in dusty, arid Rampura reeling under yet another droughty summer, the Chhappaniya famine of 1899 ravaging the countryside and leaving 12-year-old Harilal determined to do better for himself. Soon after, young Hari finds himself married to 11-year-old Parmeshwari and travelling with the worldly Hemraj Biyani in an overcrowded third-class carriage to Kalkatta, “breathless with excitement, conscious of being connected to Calcutta, Bombay, England and the whole world through Daulatram Gulabchand. What a glorious firm and what good fortune to be working for it!”

Kalkatta proves to be everything and more Hari’s overheated brain had imagined it would be — the sights, sounds, smells, the many kinds of people, professions (legitimate and illegitimate), the wealth and the poverty, and, above all, the sheer rain-blessed fecundity of the “Second City of Empire” seduce and overwhelm the young Marwari, who gradually makes it his own.

Saraf’s strength lies in creating quirky,believable characters who infuse Hari’s life-story with dashes of eccentric humour (not all of it deliberate) — there are the teachers, Master Bholaram in Rampura and Surendra Bagchi in Bogra, not to speak of the many women who shape Harilal — and it is a testament to his architectonic skills that Saraf never lets his minor characters overwhelm the broad contours of his central biography-driven narrative.

Yet, despite all Saraf’s efforts, Harilal Tibrewal remains stuck in the stereotypical mould of the money-grubbing, egotistical, control-freak Marwari, even as he rues the ways in which people fail to acknowledge his heroic struggle to rise above his humble origins to create a trading empire. At one point in the story, Harilal sits discussing Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice with his bookish son, Tribhuvan. Harilal first defends Shylock’s demand of a pound of Antonio’s flesh since it “was a pukka loan, formalized on a piece of paper” and on being told of Shylock’s status as an outsider, a Yehudi, says, “A Yehudi in Venice is much like a Marwari in Bengal. No one wants him there, but everyone needs his capital.”

It is this sense of being both wanted and unwanted, lauded and despised, loved and hated, at the same time that lends a strange poignancy to Harilal’s story in particular and Saraf’s novel in general. Harilal & Sons is not just about a particular clan or community, but also about the many crossings and migrations, displacements and settlements, the to-ings and fro-ings of Indians within India that have gone into the making of this multifarious land. Saraf’s may not quite be the Great Marwari Novel we have all been waiting for, but it certainly tells an engaging story of a people who have done much to make India what it is today, for better and for worse.

Samantak Das teaches literature at Jadavpur University, Kolkata
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