Coin-tossed destiny

Why do the just and innocent suffer for no apparent fault of their own? And why do some people get away with murder most foul? Why are some blessed with more money than they know what to do with, while others are forced to lead a hand-to-mouth existence? These and allied questions, which most of us wonder about at some point in our lives, are examined in the course of this novel. At first glance, middle aged, greying, careworn Harihar Arora seems anything but heroic. Striving to rise above petty joint family rivalries where he is the underdog younger son, Harihar secures a job as assistant to the curator of the Madras Museum. He struggles to make ends meet on a modest salary, and plug the unforeseen places from where his money leaks away triumphantly. In addition to these commonplace tribulations, Harihar’s only son Ratan disappeared mysteriously, several years ago. All attempts to trace the strapping young man have failed, yet Harihar, his wife Sarla and daughter Meeta cannot face the fact that Ratan may be dead.
Harihar now focuses his love, resources, and even his life’s ambitions, upon arranging a grand wedding for his darling Meeta and securing her future happiness. The basically honest Harihar steals a rare gold coin minted by Jahangir from the museum and pawns it for ready cash. He considers this a loan, and has every intention of redeeming the coin after the wedding. Soon his life’s savings, deposited with the City Benefit Fund, will mature with a hefty interest. Meanwhile, the wheels of fortune turn against Harihar and thousands of innocents like him, as they lose everything to scamsters running the bankrupt City Benefit Fund. With ruin staring him in the face, Harihar bravely pulls off Meeta’s wedding, hiding his inner turmoil from his loved ones. While performing Meeta’s marriage, his brain throbs with the foreboding of impending doom. Yet he is pleased to note how handsome and cooperative Meeta’s bridegroom is. “A dreamy light in his eyes touched a sensitive chord in Harihar by reminding him of Ratan. He struggled to quell the unbidden wave of grief swamping him but had to openly wipe his eyes.”

His only solace is Meeta’s happiness. Can Harihar redeem the priceless coin from the pawnbroker and save his honour? This selfless love raises Harihar above the common herd, as does his appreciation for the priceless works of art in the museum. The author deftly draws us into a sense of intimacy. We empathise with Harihar and wish him to succeed. Harihar and the other characters are finely drawn. They come across as convincing, real people with flaws and amazing strengths. Harihar’s wife Sarla, for example, is at first glance a nondescript, not too educated homemaker. Yet, it is she who comes up with surprising resources to support her husband in his darkest hour. The other relatives, with their mix of rivalries, grudges and goodwill, could be members of our own extended clans. It’s difficult to like Kumar, the maniacal coin collector, or even relate to his
crazed obsession. But this fits in with his sinister role in the story.

Harihar is by turns both a victim and a mover of his own fate. Beneath the beguilingly simple surface of an interesting story are deeper philosophical questions which Harihar, and by extension, the reader, are compelled to examine. In the end, Harihar sees that “life, despite the worst of circumstance, was not a prison. Each day with every single thought and act of his, he was building his future lives. If he paid attention to the now, he would ensure an excellent, though indescribable, later.”

As this well-crafted, smoothly written novel draws to a satisfying close, a long and contrived diatribe on karma breaks the flow. From pages 275-287, Harihar’s erudite boss discourses on whether only fate, or human will and effort, counts in the course of human life. This detailed philosophical commentary breaks the dramatic impact of the novel, and drives home a little too strongly philosophical ideas permeating Harihar’s story.

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