BOOK EXCERPT

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.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Movies can make you leap beyond what is possible

Movies have the power to inspire us like nothing else.

Why do we love watching movies? The question might be elementary, but one that generates a range of responses. If you had to visualise the world of movies on a spectrum, it would reflect vivid shades of human emotions like inspiration, thrill, fantasy, adventure, love, motivation and empathy - generating a universal appeal bigger than of any other art form.

“I distinctly remember when I first watched Mission Impossible I. The scene where Tom Cruise suspends himself from a ventilator to steal a hard drive is probably the first time I saw special effects, stunts and suspense combined so brilliantly.”  

— Shristi, 30

Beyond the vibe of a movie theatre and the smell of fresh popcorn, there is a deeply personal relationship one creates with films. And with increased access to movies on television channels like &flix, Zee Entertainment’s brand-new English movie channel, we can experience the magic of movies easily, in the comforts of our home.

The channel’s tagline ‘Leap Forth’ is a nod to the exciting and inspiring role that English cinema plays in our lives. Comparable to the pizazz of the movie premieres, the channel launched its logo and tagline through a big reveal on a billboard with Spider-Man in Mumbai, activated by 10,000 tweets from English movies buffs. Their impressive line-up of movies was also shown as part of the launch, enticing fans with new releases such as Spider-Man: Homecoming, Baby Driver, Blade Runner 2049, The Dark Tower, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and Life.

“Edgar Wright is my favourite writer and director. I got interested in film-making because of Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the dead. I love his unique style of storytelling, especially in his latest movie Baby Driver.”

— Siddhant, 26

Indeed, movies can inspire us to ‘leap forth’ in our lives. They give us an out-of-this-world experience by showing us fantasy worlds full of magic and wonder, while being relatable through stories of love, kindness and courage. These movies help us escape the sameness of our everyday lives; expanding our imagination and inspiring us in different ways. The movie world is a window to a universe that is full of people’s imaginations and dreams. It’s vast, vivid and populated with space creatures, superheroes, dragons, mutants and artificial intelligence – making us root for the impossible. Speaking of which, the American science fiction blockbuster, Ghost in the Shell will be premiering on the 24th of June at 1:00 P.M. and 9:00 P.M, only on &flix.

“I relate a lot to Peter Parker. I identified with his shy, dorky nature as well as his loyalty towards his friends. With great power, comes great responsibility is a killer line, one that I would remember for life. Of all the superheroes, I will always root for Spiderman”

— Apoorv, 21

There are a whole lot of movies between the ones that leave a lasting impression and ones that take us through an exhilarating two-hour-long ride. This wide range of movies is available on &flix. The channel’s extensive movie library includes over 450 great titles bringing one hit movie premiere every week. To get a taste of the exciting movies available on &flix, watch the video below:

Play

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of &flix and not by the Scroll editorial team.