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Based on true events, it is a story set in a small coastal village Thul near Bombay. The two main characters of the novel are a brother and sister duo, 13-year-old Lila and 12-year-old Hari. They have two young school-going sisters, Bela and Kamal, a chronically ill mother and a good-for-nothing drunkard father. Their father had sold his paddy fields, fishing boat and even cattle long back to pay his toddy debts. Eventually the burden of looking after the family falls on the small shoulders of Hari and Bela, which they take on themselves with a sense of duty. Lila does the household chores and takes care of her sisters and ailing mother and Hari earns a little money by doing odd jobs or by selling vegetables he grows in his garden.
Close to their hut is a country house, Mon Repos, owned by a rich family of De Silvas from Bombay. Occasionally, De Silvas come to Mon Repos for holidaying and Hari and Lila work for them as part-time domestics to earn some extra money. Mr De Silva is a kind man and he gets impressed by the hard work of Hari. He gives Hari his city address as an invite to work for him in Bombay.
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There is also a ?well-to-do? burly and boastful man Biju in the village who even has a TV set that does not catch signals. He builds a big fishing boat fitted with a diesel engine. Children spoof him when the boat overturns before it goes into the sea.
Hari is in dire need of money to educate his sisters, treat his ailing mother and above all to make both ends meet. For money he needs a job and he has three choices, De Silvas in Bombay or the factory or Biju?s big boat. One day when he returns home, he finds his sisters weeping over their dead dog Pinto. Lila tells him that their drunkard neighbour poisoned Pinto because their father did not return the debt he owed to him.
Enraged and frustrated by his own helplessness he decides to leave his home for Bombay. He joins a group of protesting farmers and fishermen led by Aderkar on a boat and reaches Bombay. All protesters gather to hear politicians, NGOs and others at Kala Ghoda. Many people speak on the looming hazards of the proposed factory on the flora and fauna and the life of the native villagers. An old man, Sayyid Ali (famous ornithologist Dr Salim Ali) also speaks on the subject. When the crowd is dispersed, he goes to De Silvas? apartment in a building at Malabar Hills but is driven out by the servant as De Silvas had left for their country house in Thul. The watchman of the building pities him and takes him to his friend Jagu?s shabby restaurant. Jagu is a good-hearted person and gives him shelter and job to work in his Sri Krishna Eating House.
In his village, his sisters Lila, Bela and Kamal help De Silvas as usual. De Silvas admit their mother to a hospital in Alibagh. By then their father stops drinking and goes to Alibagh to look after his wife. Before leaving Thul, De Silvas give children the housekeeping job and tell them to wait and welcome a distinguished guest who will live for a longer period in Thul.
Hari works hard in Jagu?s restaurant and fortunately he finds his ?true benefactor, the kindest and most helpful of all?, a watch-mender, Mr Panwallah, who runs his shop next door. He trains Hari to become a watch-mender and lets him keep the repairing charges. Doubts lurk in his mind that even watch-mending would not help him in getting a job in his village. He tells Mr Panwallah that elders in the villages say that only engineers and skilled workers will get work in the factory. Mr Panwallah dispels his doubts and explains to him there will be plenty of work for him and all after the industrialization.
Hari lives in Bombay for nine months facing all rigours that Bombay has in store for the poor - the monsoon, humidity, flooded roads, dirt and stench. He grows stronger and stronger by the passage of time. One day he hears news on the radio that a windstorm has sank some boats in the seawaters around his village. He becomes anxious and longs to go back to his village. Jagu requests him to stay till Diwali which he accepts.
He returns to his village before Diwali festival and he finds a changed father, a healthy mother and happy sisters. When he visits Mon Repos he meets the same old man who had addressed their gathering at the Kala Ghoda. Sayyid Ali informs him that they lost the case in the court. However, like Mr Panwallah he too inspires Hari and asks him to adapt to changed circumstances. Thus the novel ends in a happy family reunion with celebration of Diwali lighting their hearts with hope. The book is an unputdownable and captivating reading for children and grownup alike.