Excerpt of A Free Man by Aman Sethi
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'At forty,' says Mohammed Ashraf, delicately picking
at the joint's smouldering cherry, 'a man starts to fear
'At twenty, he is cautious; at thirty he is wary, suspicious
by thirty-five, but fear? Fear starts at forty.'
'Accha bhai, now pass.'
Mohammed Ashraf looks up with an air of enquiry in
his bloodshot eyes. Our circle of huddled figures stares back
hungrily. He takes another hit from the joint. 'At forty his
arms weaken. His shoulders sag a bit, his moustache droops.
His voice might cracklike a phata hua harmonium. His
friends, if he still has any
'Pass, Ashraf bhai. Pass.' Muffled, yet insistent, a voice
has emerged from somewhere in our midst. For a quarter
of an hour we have sat in silence as Ashraf has extolled the
virtues of ticketless train travel, counted the blessings of
being in jail, and, with a rolled-up shirt in one hand and a
slender paintbrush in the other, demonstrated the proper
technique for skinning chicken. We have stifled our yawns,
crossed and uncrossed our legs, and swatted away squadrons
of mosquitoes as Ashraf has pulled and sucked and ashed
at the joint wedged firmly between his fingers.
'Sorry, does someone want this?'
The crowd shuffles. In our circle, the joint has moderated
conversation; microphone-like, it singles out its holder as
the speaker. Tranquillized by the ganja, exhausted by a long
day of work, Ashraf is nonetheless invigorated by the ease
with which he has commanded the undivided attention of
all present. We've stared fixedly as he's brought the joint
to his lips and taken deep, satisfying drags; we've inhaled
as he's inhaled, winced as he's choked on the sharp, bitter
smoke; we've held our breath to allow the weed to exert
its mystical powers, and exhaled as he's expelled smoke
from his lungs.
'Arre, pass, Ashraf bhai?' Rehaan asks again. They look
at each other for the briefest of instants, wondering if the
impoliteness of hurrying someone's hit is outweighed by
that of holding the joint too long. Ashraf knows that he
can hold off passing the joint for only as long as he can
keep us immersed in his tale, and we have finally run out
of patience. It was an interesting story, but a timer has
finally gone off in someone's head. I can hear it; it sounds
like the tapping of a screwdriver against an empty tea
glass. It's Lalloo.
Lalloo has finished his whisky, Rehaan has smoked his
beedi down to his fingertips, and I? I have maintained a
firm grip on the edge of the concrete stair, and am happy
to report that I haven't fallen over.
The joint has passed on: Rehaan, its newest custodian,
is desperately peddling a tale of rutting pigs, fighting
mynahs, and the sorrow of the Ranikhet disease, scourge
of poultry farmers. He knows he's on borrowed time
headed inexorably for that moment when someone sitting
to his left shall look up at him and, almost inaudibly,
If I could speak, I would urge Rehaan to take his time
and savour it. But the whisky has thickened my tongue and
the beedis have scorched my throat; I fear the joint might
kill me. Lean back, Rehaan, and tell us the longest, juiciest
story you know. Let it start from when you were two years
old, scrabbling around in a sunny yard in a village in Uttar
Pradesh, and stretch right up to today, twenty years later:
when you have lost your virginity, started smoking, stopped
speaking to your mother, fallen out with your brother, and
fallen in with this lot outside this shuttered shopfront at
this crossing at seven in the evening in Sadar Bazaar.
But I can't speak for fear of puking up the raw paneer and
freshly boiled eggs that I ate fifteen minutes ago. Hopefully
by the time Rehaan finishes his story, the pillar with the
surveillance cameras will stop spinning, my seat will stop
swaying, the light from the street lamps will no longer
crash against my eyelashes and shatter into a thousand
luminous fragments, and I may just contemplate a hit of
that jointnot because I want to, no sir, but because I have
to. This joint, like everything else that follows, shall be for
research purposes only.
Reprinted from A Free Man: A True Story of Life and Death in Delhi by Aman Sethi. Copyright © 2011 by Aman Sehti. First American edition 2012. With the permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.