Book review of Harilal and Sons: Family Narrative as Business History

Sujit Saraf wrote this novel by the name Harilal and Sons:

It is the year 1899. In the north western 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 and 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 and 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’.

Thomas Timberg who wrote the famous book on Marwaris in this book review in EPW says this novel could be used to figure business history. He says the story closely resembles that of GD Birla:

Normally Economic & Political Weekly (EPW) does not review novels but this is a deserving and valuable exception. Based on the personal and commercial record of his Marwari Bania family over more than a century, author Sujit Saraf recounts the family members’ commercial and personal fates. There are, he reports, 502 descendants of the family firm founder, who died in 1960 at the age of 80. The novel reports the family members’ changing sets of values, professions and orientations responding to commercial community traditions, business opportunities, secular education and political movements.

Though it is a novel and not a history, it follows the trajectory from Harilal, the firm founder, who moved from his home village in Shekhavati to become a child clerk in a big Marwari firm in Bara Bazaar (roughly modelled on Tarachand Ghanshyamdas, an iconic “great” firm of early 20th century) (Timberg 1978, 2014). While doing the work of a humble teenage clerk, fetching and delivering cloth and payments, he surreptitiously began to speculate on the Kolkata “rain bargain” (fatka) market with initial success and then loss (Hardgrove 2004: 270–333; Birla 2008: 143–98). There is also a story, this one fictional, of how teenaged Harilal and his speculator partner attracted the affection of and some business from David Yule, whose personal engagement with Indian business persons was legendary and atypical for a resident British business person in Kolkata.

Prof Timberg says it is not a business novel but lessons are there for all to see..

 

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