What does a man live for? How and when does he feel fulfilled? Different writers have answered this question differently. Tolstoy’s Pahom realised, too late in the day, that he needed only six feet of land! Harilal Tibrewal, the hero of Sujit Saraf’s 73-year saga, was born a year after Tolstoy’s famous short story, How Much Land Does a Man Need?, was published. Harilal, however, spent his entire life pursuing what he learnt to be a bania’s dharma: growing his deals and his family. He never knew when to stop. Like Pahom, he too paid a price. He lived like an ox attached forever to the tiller, sitting behind the cash box, unaware of a life outside the pale of his business.
“This was what his father had done all his life in Rampura, and his grandfather before him. He knew he must not complain… Wealth was to be accumulated slowly, through small, steady profits, not through occasional windfalls. Such wealth was more stable, more durable, indeed more moral.” The gods had to be appeased always—with regular pujas, food that was pure and sattvik, and a life that met the minimum needs. And cows, who were like the second mother, had to be always respected and cared for.
At 12 years of age, Harilal leaves his family and the famine-plagued dry land and skies of Shekhawati in Rajasthan for the greener pastures of Kalkatta. At 18 years of age, he moves to Bangladesh, where rains are plentiful and crops grow lush on fertile land. He sets up his first shop there, dealing in rice, wheat, sugar, kerosene and salt. Harilal painstakingly builds a business that flourishes into jute-making, trading and even a cigarette shop. Growing and prospering, he even learns to live among cow-eating Bengali Muslims and not pick a fight. “A bania saw no profit in grandstanding… and honour? What was honour? Life was given by Ramji, honour by men…, a bania must not sin and a bania must not abet sin, but when had Ramji asked him to prevent others from sinning?”
Loosely based on his grandfather’s life—primarily memories pieced together from family members and some research—Saraf draws a portrait of a man who is forever burdened by growth pangs. He manages to expand his family, his businesses, his wealth and his experiences, but never seems to grow out of his responsibilities. There is no dearth of “the yellow one” in his safe, besides “the white one”, but his only shine lies in his ever-expanding brood of sons and the businesses they start or take over and run faithfully.
And therein lies the problem with this book. At 500 pages, it’s at least one-third too long and often reads like a bania ka khata. Literary writing is not Saraf’s strong suit unless the language was kept deliberately transactional to suit Harilal’s unidirectional life story. There are occasional bright portrayals (like the long train journey seen through the eyes of a village boy) and even brief patches of plot twists (like an unexpected and emotional death), but their effect is quickly dissipated in the mundane happenings that follow. In Saraf’s case, the devil does lie in the details because of which the children never grow into powerful characters, or colourful ones, not even a couple of them—with the lone exception of Manki, the second wife, whose singular idiosyncrasies remain with you, dare I say, more than Harilal does. The story flows over the pages like a river in Shekhawati, flat and slow, often drying up in the course of its reluctant journey.
At his life’s end, Harilal is permanently trapped in grihastha—forget about sanyas, he finds, to his great sorrow, that he is not even fortunate enough to reach banaprastha, the third stage of life that signals detachment from family. Even his efforts to retire in Shekhawati, far away from where his family is settled, don’t give him the detachment he always craved for. As he closes his eyes, befuddled and a bit confused by what he really achieved, he is not at peace. In his utter grief, Harilal redeems himself and his life lived in teaspoons, and so does Saraf—and this long, rambling narrative of daily deals and minutiae of the life of Harilal and his sons seems to come a full circle, like a long-winded khayal phrase finally reaching sam. There’s a kind of parched beauty in the music that Saraf makes, but there’s also relief when it ends, and a feeling of something that did not take shape and is forever lost.
Paromita Shastri is a
former financial journalist