The Village by the Sea
is a young adult novel written by Indian writer Anita Desai. The novel was first published in London in 1982, while the U.S. version of the book was released in 1984. The book tells the story of two Indian siblings, Lila and Hari, as they try to improve life for their impoverished family. The novel won the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize, a British book award, in 1983.
Lila and Hari are the oldest children in a poor family. They live in Thul, a small fishing village located next to the sea in a rural region of India. The family has not always been poor, but fell into bad fortune when the children’s father paid a large sum of money to a man who promised to get him a job in Mumbai. However, the man lied to him and disappeared with the money. After the incident, the father fell into a deep despair and began drinking and neglecting the family. He does not earn a living, but borrows money from the neighbors to buy alcohol.
Since the children’s mother is very sick and confined to her bed most of the time, thirteen-year-old Lila and twelve-year-old Hari have taken over parental duties for their younger siblings, Bela and Kamal. Lila takes care of their mother and performs the household chores while Hari works as a laborer in the fields to earn money to support the family. Hari is always looking for new work and ways to alleviate his family’s poverty. The villagers receive the news that a factory may open in town, and many boys wait eagerly to sign up for work. Hari wonders whether he should apply for a job there.
The siblings’ luck improves when a wealthy family, the DeSilvas, move into the house next door and pay Lila and Hari to do some work around their home. The DeSilvas live in Mumbai and are just spending the holiday in Thul. After he hears about the children’s plight, Mr. DeSilva tells Hari he can get him a job at a car wash in Mumbai. Although the job offer falls through, Hari thinks about going to Mumbai to look for work, especially after the family’s dog, Pinto, is poisoned by neighbors as revenge for their father not being able to pay back money that he borrowed to buy alcohol.
Biju, a fisherman, is building a boat with an engine. Some of the villagers in Thul are upset that factories are being built on their land and decide to travel to Mumbai to complain to the government. Hari takes advantage of the opportunity to go with them to Mumbai. When he gets there, he looks for the DeSilvas but learns that they are away on vacation. Hira La, a servant in the DeSilvas’ house, helps Hari by introducing him to a man named Jagu,who offers him a job in his restaurant, the Sri Krishna Eating House, and pays him a rupee a day for his work. Hari sends a postcard to his sister to let her know where he is, and sends the money that he earns home to help the family.
Back in Thul, Lila is struggling to care for their sick mother, who needs to be hospitalized. She asks the DeSilvas for help. Mr. DeSilva takes Lila and Hari’s mother to the hospital and helps pay for her treatment until she gets better. Mr. Panwallah, a watchmaker who owns a shop near the Sri Krishna Eating House, offers to teach Hari his craft and asks Jagu to allow Hari to work in his shop for a couple of hours a day. With Mr. Panwallah’s help, Hari becomes very skilled at making and repairing watches. After a while, however, Hari begins to miss his family and decides to go back to Thul.
When he gets home, he finds that his mother’s condition has improved and that his father is slowly beginning to recover from his alcoholism. He starts a small business raising animals and thinks about using what he learned from Mr. Panwallah to open his own watch repair shop in the village. The story ends on a hopeful note with the family’s situation finally beginning to improve.
The main themes of the novel are family, responsibility, poverty, trust, promises, and dealing with adversity. Hari and Lila work hard to improve their own lives, but also benefit greatly from the assistance of kind individuals. The main message of the story is to persevere in the face of hardship and take advantage of every opportunity to make a better life while also helping others who are less fortunate. The novel also paints a picture of a changing world that is becoming more industrialized and in which skilled labor is increasingly replacing agriculture as the primary means of making a living.