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Beginning in 1899 when India was still under British rule, this sprawling narrative takes us through the country’s independence and partition in 1947 and ends in 1972, following the creation of Bangladesh.

At the centre of the story is Harilal, a Marwari[1] merchant. When the story opens, Harilal is 12 years old. He lives in Shekhavati in Rajasthan (northwest India), a village ravaged by drought, where he helps his father in his grain store. This is a time when children were expected to become adults much earlier than they do now. They were married at 12—the age when boys were expected to start work—although the couple did not live together until the girl was 17.

But Hari is restless. He is fascinated by an abandoned haveli, a mansion constructed by Daulatram, a rich merchant. The haveli is beautiful with frescos on its outer walls that depict a world outside Shekhavati. But Daulatram has never lived in it, having died the day it was completed. Hari’s father says that the haveli is a testament to a man who had overreached himself. Marwaris are supposed to be frugal and hide their wealth, not flaunt it by building large, lavish houses.

But the haveli and its frescos spark something in Hari. He knows that his dreams will not be contained in this dry, dusty village. He meets Hemraj Biyani, who runs Daulatram’s business, and talks him into giving him a job in Calcutta. Before leaving, Hari is married to 11-year-old Parmeshwari.

Calcutta is a world away from Shekhavati. Hari cannot believe the abundance of this fertile land. He works for Biyani, running errands for him. Slowly, his confidence builds and he starts to trade for an Englishman. He joins a group of men who bet (illegally) on whether it will rain or not and finds he has a talent for predicting the weather. But the British authorities crack down on illegal betting, and Hari has to leave Calcutta.

He moves to Bogra, a small town in eastern Bengal, where he sets up his own shop called Harilal & Sons. Parmeshwari joins him, and his family expands. The children grow up, get married, have children of their own. One of his sons, Tribhuvan, moves to Calcutta to study law, defying his father’s wishes that his sons and grandsons should be merchants.

Meanwhile, history is running its course. India wins independence, but is divided into two countries, with Pakistan being situated on India’s western and eastern borders. The partition is violent, and there are perpetrators and victims on both sides. The town of Bogra goes to Pakistan, which means that Hari and his family have to flee to India.

Things come full circle as, eventually, Hari returns to Shekhavati to live out his days. He finally understands why Daulatram had built his haveli and, following in the footsteps of the man who had inspired him to leave Shekhavati, builds a haveli of his own next to it.

This is a rich narrative, centering on a community that has been neglected in Indian fiction. Sujit Saraf has drawn on his family history: Harilal is based on Saraf’s grandfather who had left Rajasthan to go to Calcutta. The characters are vividly drawn (although I sometimes got confused keeping up with some of the great-grandchildren). It is interesting to see the history of India from Hari’s point of view: politics is a distant concern, unlike for his son Tribhuvan, who joins the freedom movement.

Saraf’s writing is evocative, for example, this description of the drought in Shekhavati:

“Sand and sky were white. Another dry day. Eyes scoured the bowl above, seeking a wrinkle. July and not a wisp of cloud, not a drop of rain. The young could not recall a summer so stark, the old spoke of the Bhaiya and Saiya famines of fifty-five years ago. In the evenings, in hushed gatherings on sand dunes, under a lonely moon, they told stories.”

One of my gripes, however, is that there isn’t a glossary for readers who are not familiar with Hindi. But then I had bought an Indian edition, so maybe there is a glossary for editions published in the West? But don’t be put off by this. With the history of modern India as a backdrop, the book is an evocative portrait of one of India’s important communities.

[1] Marwaris are a community of traders and merchants, originally from northwest India.