Is this, at last, the great Marwari novel of modern India?

A saga that is as much about its characters as it is about the community of Marwaris in 20th century Calcutta.

Hari soon discovered that a boy of twelve could do little but sit around the office and wait to be sent out on errands – a glass of rose sherbet for Khemchandji, a message to the durbaan at the door, a trip to collect rent from the flour mill. When he was dispatched to collect on debts, the amounts were small – 125 was a pittance, he soon learned – and the payments involved no delays, because that would require some haggling over the interest rate with the debtor.

However much his ten rupees had seemed at first, he was the lowest paid clerk in the office. The eight annas he had saved every month vanished as soon as winter required him to buy a muffler and a new pair of Nagra sandals. He kept scrupulous accounts, yet his earnings seemed to slip away and there was no prospect of accumulation. Walking through the narrow, circuitous lanes of Bara Bazar, he shrank from the dirt and the rude crowds, the boys bathing at roadside pumps, the women cooking in a sea of slush, their pots and pans collecting splashes of water from tonga wheels.

Then there was the problem of the fish market, which became impossible to avoid on his way to Cotton Street. There he saw goat carcasses, snails and fish that were still living, flailing when held by the tail, dripping blood on counters. When passing these, he longed for the open spaces of Rampura where a boy could wander in the fields and chew on bajra, or jump into the pond near the dam for an afternoon bath, without having to deal with Bengalis, crowds, English sahibs or tongawalas.

He had hoped this was to be a temporary situation that would enable him to start his own shop, as Seth Daulatram had done in Cotton Street, but where would he get the money for a shop, given that he had been unable to save even a few annas in nine months?

Trade is in our blood, his father had told him, but that blood had to be sweetened with capital.

No one would trust his money with a boy of twelve who knew nothing but arithmetic and Modhiya. Perhaps he could become a dalaal – a jute or opium under-broker; he could learn how to tell good jute from bad and arrange deals for Khemchandji. A good dalaal at a European firm could earn three hundred rupees in a month, but such firms employed experienced men who had already been brokers in Indian firms for years.

The capital of a dalaal was his reputation and his word, and no one would trust the word of a boy. Besides, a dalaal had to know how to speak Bengali with Bengalis, a little Hindi, and perhaps some English when dealing with sahibs.

In June, eleven months after he had arrived in Calcutta, he asked the cashier in Lalgodam to show him his account. A red binder was produced and opened to a page that contained too few entries: his accumulated savings were three rupees and six annas.

Later that day, he walked down Cotton Street to collect on a bill. There was a letter from his father in his kurta pocket. Having received no news of home for seven months, and having sent none, lest his father – laid low by the Chhappaniya – be burdened with his misfortunes in Calcutta, he was afraid to read the letter. When did Raamji ever send good news from Shekhavati?

June was the month of blistering heat in the tibbas, of preparation for bajra planting, of scanning the sky for wisps of cloud. Perhaps the Chhappaniya would return this year, as the Saiya famine had followed the Bhaiya. He sat on a bench and bought a glass of tea, knowing he should not drink anything when on an errand. With the tea calming his nerves, he opened the note.

“... Rukmini is now sixteen, and her father-in-law has already asked thrice, ‘When will you send her to us?’ I cannot delay her departure any longer, even if I am unable to buy the gifts that must go with her. Your mother has put together everything she could find in the house – after setting aside the gifts that must be given to Jasoda and Muniya when it is their time – but I do not know what I will give to her husband when he comes to take her away. Panditji has determined Aashaadh sudi dashmi – the day Raamji had chosen for your wedding last year – as auspicious for Rukmini’s departure. If you are able to, send a gold ring from Kalkatta. I have made enquiries, and gold has declined to twenty-four rupees in Kalkatta – some even quote twenty-three rupees, fifteen anna and a paisa for a tola, a rate I have not seen in fifteen years. Do not spend too much: a one-tola ring will be sufficient. You will find many men in Lalgodam leaving for Shekhavati in a week or two, before the chaumasa begins. Send the earrings with them...”

Hari could read no more.

He understood what the letter left unsaid – his sister Draupadi had not survived the fever that had attacked her a few days before his wedding. His father would not make the mistake of communicating such inauspicious news in a letter. Instead, he had named everyone but Draupadi, letting Hari divine the rest.

He wished he had never come to Disavar, and never believed those stories they had told him about Seth Daulatram. But for the Chhappaniya, he would be sitting in the shop with his father, weighing mounds of bajra and moth, gwar, cucumber and melons, bantering with customers, speaking of trips to temples in Sikar and Jhunjhunu.

Why did anyone in Rampura have to step out of Shekhavati at all? “There is much to buy and sell,” Hemrajji had said, “and a hundred ways for a good bania to make money. Once a boy has learned the ways of Disavar, he starts out on his own.” Yes, but not a boy sent out before his time!

He could simply pack his trunk and return to Rampura. He would have to borrow money for the gold ring – Khemchandji would perhaps extend a loan. He would have to ask for more than twenty-four rupees: his father had not accounted for the cost of workmanship – two-and-a-half annas in a rupee. Excited, he stood up, then sat down immediately when reminded of the train fare. What would his father say about the waste?

Ten rupees to go from Delhi to Calcutta, another ten to return, with nothing to show for the expense but a gold ring and a debt of thirty-five rupees! In any case, he could not return empty-handed. When someone – even a boy – returned from Disavar, he was expected to arrive with gifts for everyone, with stories of Kalkatta, English sahibs, trains, tongas and bales of jute. What stories would he tell?

Excerpted with permission from Harilal & Sons, Sujit Saraf, Speaking Tiger.

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