Today I have an interview with an author whose newest book, Harilal And Sons, will be gracing Indian and International shelves soon. A story that goes 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 and ultimately awes you in its magnitude. The author himself has conducted research for NASA, taught at IIT and worked as a space scientist in California. And when he isn’t doing all these things, he runs Naatak, an Indian theatre company in America for which he writes and directs plays and films.
1. Stories set in British India seem to be a favourite among authors here but Harilal and sons sounds rather different, Could you tell me what thoughts you had when starting this book?
SS – When I was growing up, it was common among us to say that Bengalis were the art-types – painters, musicians, writers – engaged in professions that did not pay! Whether or not that was true, it was true that no one ever wrote about Marwaris – we were, at best, caricatured in Hindi movies (movies that were often financed with our money and brought us handsome returns).
For years, I’ve been thinking of a grand Marwari novel, a sweeping tale that would see the world with our eyes – in this case, the eyes of my grandfather. Addtionally, there was a personal imperative – the desire to record family history.
2. Harilal and Sons is said to span seven decades, I cannot imagine the amount of research that it would’ve required. Was there anything specific that you did to add to the authenticity of the story and characters?
SS – I travelled to Bangladesh, Mumbai, Rajasthan and Kolkata to interview far-flung relatives – many of whom have since died. Their ramblings, prejudices and reminiscences inform the novel, in addition to the usual historical research that one must do when writing historical fiction.
3. Did you outline the entire story ahead of time or did you let it take shape in your hands?
SS – I am a research scientist by training – I write a novel much as one conducts research. The full novel is planned, chapters are laid out and written methodically, in sequence. As in research, the outcome is sometimes different from what I had anticipated.
4. The third stage of life is something everyone talks about here, I’ve heard it so many times from my grandparents! Is there a philosophical aspect in that part of the book? What do you think of that stage?
SS – My relatives have all died in the second stage of “varnashram dharam” – Grihasthya. My father died at this desk while managing the fallout from a robbery that had taken place that very morning. I’ve often wished, for myself, a dignified retreat into “Vanaprastha” before death comes.Yet, it isn’t easy. The pull of the world – of wealth, family and ambition – is too strong. In the novel, Harilal struggles with the same “pull” of Maya.
He is advised by his old schoolmaster that a bania can never hope to achieve Sannyas – he will at best reach Vanaprastha before he dies. Hari tries to shed the entanglements of Grihasthya, and dies wondering if he has managed to do so.
5. There is a Harilal and Sons company, in fact i’m sure there are a few. Were you inspired by any of them?
SS – The Harilal & Sons in the novel is fictional. It is, of course, modelled on thousands of such firms that dot India, particularly in Bengal and Bihar.
6. You have an education that is completely different from what you are doing! How did you actually leave the engineering/NASA path and get into the artistic side of things? Was it always the dream or was it completely accidental?
SS – I never left either profession. It is, in fact, quite convenient to do both at the same time. I wrote a novel when studying at IIT (it was published a few years later by HarperCollins), and I have continued to write while pursuing a technical career. The two jobs are similar – both require planning and precision.
7. What is your typical day like since you do so much, theatre, writing and I’m sure there is much more, do you typically schedule your day or do you go where the art takes you?
SS – On a typical day, I take my kids to school and then go to work. It is quite mundane. I read a good deal, late into the night. Weekends are for theater – we rehearse and stage performances. I don’t get to schedule my days. They are largely dictated by the schedules of my kids – their games, classes, and so on.
8. Harilal and sons sounds completely intriguing, as does Peacock Throne, but I am yet to be introduced to your books. Would you advice me, and other readers like me who are just discovering you, to start with your first book, Limbo? Or you pick something else?
SS – I’d start with Sultana Daku, partly because it is slimmer and more accessible.
9. Are you already working on something new? Will it be space themed? Could we have a sneaky bit of info on it?
SS – I’ve a few books in various stages of completion. One is set in San Francisco – an Indian man has died and left behind a curious will that requires his friends to cremate him exactly as he cremated his father in India 30 years ago. This leads to an interesting chain of events.
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?
*Picture by Jason Wolf.