Harilal and Sons is a curious creature. Part biography, part ethnography, part family history, and part fiction. Maybe because I’m at present steeped in charged and seismic histories of the subcontinent, this work of ochre-exotica set at a pace and style that makes a certain species of European and American believe they have arrived at a meaningful novel, wasn’t engaging until I decided to wear non-fiction lenses. That way, the subject of the book, now two years old and on the cusp of a literary award, became more than the family history it fictionally traces.

This is not meant to be offensive. Books are written to share stories that matter to the writer if not the market. Sujit Saraf, a writer of acclaimed popular fiction, diligently shares the story of Harilal, a character based on his grandfather, Hiralal – the masque drops in anagram. The journeys of this engaging Berkeley-smoking man is gleaned from family conversations and recorded history for the book that highlights a people generally known as the Marwari.

The draw of Marwar

It is 1899. We see Harilal as he travels from Rajasthan to Kolkata. The 12-year-old has learned a few fractional tables by rote along with other arithmetical instruments of commerce. In the subcontinental mind an archetypal Marwari isn’t a warrior without an arsenal to aid the calculation of compound interest. Now young Harilal, somewhat relieved at leaving behind the harsh existence of Shekhavati – “this land of scrub and sand and khejra leaves”, Saraf writes – awaits a journey of a lifetime with a family friend who will introduce him to the world of business in the soul of the thriving, winner-takes-all Anglo-Indian empire. So far, so scripted.

Saraf’s homage – study, even, of person-time-place – is of personal interest for several reasons. I don’t share the general dislike, even hatred, that many Bengalis have for the “Marwari”. Perhaps, because my default childhood conditioning of hate-the-Marwari was leavened by nearly a decade of schooling in the heart of Rajasthan, the north-eastern aspect of which houses the region of Shekhavati. It’s not Marwar, the etymological wellspring of the Marwari near and around Jodhpur, what the Orientalist and historian James Tod in his Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan...referred to as “Maroo des”: the sandy ground zero of Jodhpur, Nagaur, Barmer, and Pali.

But the Marwari, as trader, financier, banker, and some of the industrious lot reborn as “industrialist”, are from here as well as elsewhere in Rajasthan. Shekhavati, for instance, Harilal’s home. But Marwar is still the overwhelming draw. Ancestors of the respected and reviled Jagat Seth family of Bengal, which is referred to in several colonial tracts as “Rothschild of India”, travelled to Bengal from Nagaur – part of what the economic historian Thomas Timberg colourfully calls “classic Marwar” in his book, The Marwaris: From Jagat Seth to the Birlas.

Why the hatred?

Rajasthan is home. The tough, gritty, khejri tree, Prosopis cineraria, is a beacon of homecoming as much as the lush fruit trees of deltaic Bengal. For a while I spoke “Marwari”. My mother’s people trace their roots to a village of priests near Sirohi in southern Rajasthan. Or perhaps my reasons for a lack of revulsion towards the Marwari stems from the decades-long interaction, in my avatar of a journalist, with numerous businesspersons that assured me of one truth: venality is ethnicity-, caste- and polish-agnostic. I’ve known the most cultured not-Marwari businessperson selling, if not their mothers, then certainly their mother-country, to profit.

Why blame Harilal – or Hiralal – and his people?

Why hold anything against the Birlas, Goenkas, Poddars, Bajorias, Khaitans, Sekhsarias, Somanys, Jhunjhunwalas, Bangurs, and several thousand of their blood brothers in Bengal and across India who may today own much of the state and vast areas of commercial India? Why grudge their wealth with which they own enormous political reach? Why decry several of them, today active patrons of art and culture across India – yes, even in West Bengal. Marwaris even funded Satyajit Ray’s breakout movies, and his more successful ones.

A long history

When I maintained as much in The Bengalis, a biography of my community, I got trolled by several Bengalis for betraying the side. For taking up for people who are pejoratively called “Mérō”, or “Māurā” by those from East Bengal. Some damned the book. Besides the fact that rage born of hyper-ethnicity and distorted historiography took five pages of text from a book of nearly 500 pages to conclude it was traitorous, vitriol against a community that has a stranglehold on Bengal’s economy on account of their acumen and networking, has its roots in history.

It’s an unbroken line of hatred that stretches to the British East India Company and its star, colonel-turned-general-turned-zamindar Robert Clive. It’s a fact that Clive & Co partnered with the Jagat Seth clan, bankers to the nawabs of Bengal from the early 18th century reign of Murshid Quli Khan, to sway the young and impetuous nawab Siraj-ud-Daulah’s general Mir Jafar and several others against Siraj. That directly affected the outcome of the Battle of Plassey in 1757, led to great expansion of the Company’s influence in Bengal and, eventually, in the subcontinent. For the Bengali it marked the end of Bengal, all because of a greedy Mérō to whom poyshā, coin, will always ring truer than morjādā, pride, and honour.

This oral and written history of stigma has passed down to generations of Bengalis. It was repeatedly reinforced in times of crisis. “The Marwaris were the ones to make the most out of the disruption of normal trading channels during wartime,” the journalist and economic historian Harish Damodaran wrote of Marwari acumen during both World War I and World War II. In the Bengali scheme of things this is a gentle estimation. The “speculative profits” Damodaran wrote of were made in commodities like jute and cotton.

Eventually, fiction

But nothing probably hurt the Bengali mind, body and soul like the speculation and hoarding of rice during World War II, precipitated by British policies to stave off a possible Japanese invasion. As I have written earlier and elsewhere, along with a few stalwarts of the ruling Muslim League in Bengal, the Marwari is implicated, historically and, perhaps more damagingly, in the public imagination, in denying food grain to vast swathes of the Bengal countryside during the war-escalated famine of 1942-43. Up to 3 million dead is a fair case for complicity. Marwari heroes, visibly and invisibly close to Mohandas Gandhi, who provided moral support, underwriting parts of the freedom movement in a delicate balance of Crown and conscience, haven’t yet been able to redress the imbalance.

Harilal journeys through the tumult of the early- and mid-20th century Kolkata and Bengal as he makes and remakes his mercantile fortunes, riding Bengal’s delights and demons from business opportunities to hubris – his own and his adoptive land’s – and the horror and fallout of Partition. When Harilal passes, he is accompanied by delirious symphonies of dreams of compound interest, and a small for-old-times’-sake bet on the weather tomorrow might bring. A tiny slice of his vast family is by his side. The saga is ended; the pre-millennial “Marwari” story told.

Who knows, the fiction of it might yet attract a prize.

Harilal and Sons, Sujit Saraf, Speaking Tiger.

Sudeep Chakravarti is the author of several books, the latest of which is The Bengalis: A Portrait of a Community. His next book is on the Battle of Plassey.