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Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Alternate History
History, Science & Current Affairs
Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Alternate History
Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Alternate History
Like Dave Eggerss Zeitoun and Alexander Masterss Stuart, this is a tour de force of narrative reportage.
Mohammed Ashraf studied biology, became a butcher, a tailor, and an electricians apprentice; now he is a homeless day laborer in the heart of old Delhi. How did he end up this way? In an astonishing debut, Aman Sethi brings him and his indelible group of friends to life through their adventures and misfortunes in the Old Delhi Railway Station, the harrowing wards of a tuberculosis hospital, an illegal bar made of cardboard and plywood, and into Beggars Court and back onto the streets.
In a time of global economic strain, this is an unforgettable evocation of persistence in the face of poverty in one of the worlds largest cities. Sethi recounts Ashrafs surprising life story with wit, candor, and verve, and A Free Man becomes a moving story of the many ways a man can be free.
'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, mutter, 'Pass?'
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.
A Free Man is a heartbreaking and troubling portrait of poverty and loss, and also an unvarnished record of one journalist's complicated relationship with his subject. The narrative is the product of five years Aman Sethi spent following a group of day laborers in Old Delhi as urban renewal programs upended the chaotic lives of its poorest residents.
Sethi wants to "understand the mazdoor ki zindagi - the life of the labourer" in Old Delhi. His subjects are the mazdoor - carriers, builders, trench diggers, painters and plasterers who earn up to one hundred and fifty rupees a day, approximately three U.S. dollars. India has large pockets of migrant laborers who live in urban areas, and though many send money home to their families and maintain strong family ties, the itinerant mazdoor that Sethi focuses on are "free" in that they are unencumbered by family, home, or money. What they do possess - physical strength, skill, memories, ingenuity, and cash from a grueling day's work - is often lost to forgetfulness, illness, liquor or thieves.
The mazdoor are strong, wounded and mercurial men, especially the safediwallah (painter) Mohammad Ashraf, "a short man, a slight man, a dark man with salt-and-pepper hair; a sharp man, a lithe man, a polite man with a clipped moustache and reddish eyes" whom Sethi befriends and around whose life he constructs his narrative. The gregarious, articulate and philosophical Ashraf welcomes Sethi into his life, but the journalist soon discovers that constructing a straight and complete "timeline" from Ashraf's stories is a struggle.
Ashraf often avoids answering the journalist's direct questions. Instead Sethi retrieves fragments of Ashraf's history during moments of drunken expansiveness, sober reflection or desolation. Ashraf explains that a rootless life has given him "a sense of azadi, freedom from [his] past," and he resists relinquishing that freedom to Sethi. At one point Ashraf tells Sethi, "Fuck your timeline."
Still, Sethi organizes his narrative into four sections: Azadi (freedom), Akelapan (solitude), Lawaris (forsaken), and Ajnabi (stranger). Each is a facet of the poverty and loss that have come to distinguish Ashraf's life, and each relates a series of setbacks, disappointments or betrayals. There's one that ends Ashraf's work as a butcher:
"So when I arrived on Monday
ten minutes late, [my boss] slapped me - full on the face, in front of everyone...and bas, it was over. I turned around and never went back."
"You could have waited for his temper to cool and then gone back, no?"
"I could. But I didn't."
"This is temporary kaam, Aman bhai...The maalik owns my work, Aman bhai, he doesn't own me."
The slap propels Ashraf to Delhi. He abandons his family and discards his life - one which included a marriage, children, the study of biology, work in the Royal Bengal Slipper Factory, work as a lemon seller, as a seller of lottery tickets, as an electrician, and as the owner of a floor polishing business. Like most of his fellow laborers, Ashraf has tried "practically everything before arriving at this crossing in Old Delhi."
Sethi is a nimble, smart and funny writer, a deft portraitist, and a keen and respectful listener to people's voices. Besides Ashraf, Sethi gives us the birdlike Kalyani, a young woman who makes a living collecting grain spilled from sacks, and invests the profits into an illegal bar constructed out of cardboard boxes. We meet Guddu, the beggar who tried but failed to sell his kidney, and the Muslim load-bearer Rehan who dreams of owning a pig farm. Then there's Ashraf's young friend, Satish, a wood varnisher dying of tuberculosis, whom Sethi accompanies to a TB hospital. There, Sethi discovers a barber who fearlessly tends to the sickest, poorest, and most friendless patients in the wards.
A Free Man is heady and sometimes disorienting, much like the life Sethi describes in Delhi where people regularly appear and disappear. He provides no preamble, no reader's guide to the Bara Tooti Chowk intersection in old Delhi's Sadar Bazaar where Ashraf and his friends live. Because Sethi doesn't paraphrase or alter his subjects' voices, non-Indian readers must make sense of their off-color slang through inference, repetition and context. A two and a half-page "Note on Language" at the end of the book, provides a brief background on the colorful and often vulgar street slang the reader has already experienced in the text.
Sethi is also frank about his own role in Ashraf's story - as he follows his subject from Delhi to Kolkata. Sethi gives him money, and presses him for information on his sex life when he feels the information he's getting is too dull. At one point when Sethi intends to buy Ashraf a much-needed set of new paintbrushes, he realizes his pocket has been picked and his cash and credit cards are gone. A phone call to his parents takes care of the problem. "My parents have righted the balance of my world," Sethi writes.
No one can right the balance of Ashraf's world. The day he realizes that he no longer remembers his mother's phone number, is when he realizes that the last sliver of a connection to his past life is lost. Sethi becomes Ashraf's friend, but the two men are never on the same footing. Sethi can leave and reenter Ashraf's life when convenient; Ashraf's life floats upon the unruly sea of circumstance and accident, as when he too becomes a patient in the TB hospital.
Eventually Sethi completes a thin timeline of Ashraf's life and finishes the book, Ashraf's gift to him. Sethi in turn has honored Ashraf by letting him speak in his own voice, the voice of the mazdoor. Still, Mohammed Ashraf remains a sketch rather than a full portrait. Despite the timeline, Ashraf doesn't feel whole - he instead feels like a composite of the many migrant laborers who drift in and out of Delhi. But because of Sethi, these solitary and forsaken men will never be forgotten.
Old Delhi, shown in the picture, is one of the places where laborer Mohammed Ashraf finds work. This picture from BazaNews.
Reviewed by Jo Perry
Rated of 5
by Jessica Stanton
A Free Man Review
You sit in a ring of New Delhi’s Bara Tooti Chowk men, as a beedi (joint) is passed around and you hear the un-candid interpretations of Mohammed Asraf’s theology on the purpose of life. Another day you are sitting at the table of your new bahiyya (honored brother) drinking country liquor at Kaka’s tea shop listening to how a mazdoor (day laborer) finds work and spends his wages. A year or two later, you are at the train station, discovering why Rehaan’s muscular physique makes him an asset for unloading cargo off the train. The events of his life and keeping track of his days seem like a myriad of untangled jargon. The same patterns for a mazdoor in New Delhi is repetitious, blurring minutes, hours, years, and decades. The joy, freedom, and hatred of such a life belongs to Mohammed Ashraf until Aman Sethi seeks to enter into his past, present, and future, recording each conversation in hopes to formulate a timeline of Mohammed Ashraf’s life. Ashraf does not look for relief, as he is a lafunter (works when he can), living the rest of his time as he pleases, continuing in the company of his bahi’s (friends like brothers). From stupor states of drunkness, to repressed memories, to hospital visits, you and Aman are present to every detail and emotion pulsing from Ashraf’s arms. If you have never been to India, the street language and geography of New Dehli can be disorienting. Thankfully, Aman includes an explanation of the New Dehli’s street slang in American terms on the last pages of the book.
A Free Man, based on a true story By Aman Sethi, carries you through human natures response to human nature: freedom, solitude, forsakenness, and being a stranger. “When you first come here, there is a lot of hope, abhilasha. You think anything is possible. You have heard all the stories of people who have made it big in the city. Slowly, as time goes by, you start wondering what you are doing.”
The events of Ashraf’s life are choppy. It is only after you have exasperated your empathy toward him, listened to the adventures of the cargo loading dock, that you are soothingly brought back to sitting at the table with Ashraf drinking your country liquor once again. Author Aman Sethi pulls you into the hearts of Mohammed Ashraf and his friends, Lalloo, and Rehaan and gives you the language and the heart behind why Ashraf has the barriers and the vulnerabilities he does, much like the city of New Delhi. It all began while Aman was on assignment for the press when he met Ashraf, and Aman is clear to let readers know he is a reporter gaining the perspective of these men. While following behind Aman, sifting through the broken pieces of each mans life and the connections weaved together as they live, breathe, work, drink, and sleep in New Dehli, you can’t help but dig up your own memories of interactions with homeless men in your own life. The clock hands move backward one evening and Ashraf recalls his memories before beginning his travels to New Delhi. A marriage union at sixteen, abandoned by compromise of pocket picking from his wife to prove how well the family was doing to her mother, a learned skillset of skinning, boiling, and cutting a chicken in record speed so the shop owner is satisfied, and the memory of the cold metal in his hands when he first fired a gun into the open street all have long been forgotten before Aman started probing Ashraf for details. A step back to reality, and a new duffle bag and a hospital visit to bed 32 are the continued efforts from Aman to keep in touch with Asraf. This true story reminds you that each has a story to tell, each has a reason their existence has become what it is, and each has joy, pain, love, laughter, and the pursuit of freedom.
A Free Man is journalist Aman Sethi's first book. It grew out of a research project and interviews he conducted in 2005 as research for an article about healthcare for homeless workers. In an August 2012 Publisher's Weekly interview, Sethi explains why he chose to write his book:
When I started as a reporter in 2005, I was surprised by the lack of [coverage] on Delhi's working class. The city had just won the bid to host the 2010 Commonwealth games, and the government had begun a massive program of urban renewal in which hundreds of thousands of homes in slums and working-class neighborhoods were demolished to make way for new infrastructure. I wrote a three-part series on "Working Delhi" to explore the lives - and capture the oral histories - of the workforce. The first part documented the lives of homeless laborers, and that's how I met Ashraf...and the other characters in my book."
Another aspect of mazdoor life that appealed to Sethi, he explains, was the freedom it represented from the striving for success: "[Their way of life] it really drew me...It had resonances of asceticism, of renunciation of worldly ambition - they were stepping out of the rat race and stepping to the side of it and coolly observing it."
Sethi lets his subjects speak for themselves and rarely if ever comments on their choices or their circumstances. Yet, their stories of workers abducted to slave labor camps, arrests and trials in Delhi's Beggar's Court, and underpaid and dangerous jobs reveal the plight of India's migrant workers. Delhi is an "arrival city" for rural people hoping to improve their lives in the large urban center. A recent article in The Wall Street Journal India, described the tensions between longtime Delhi residents and the migrant population: "On the one hand, officials in Delhi say the influx of people from other states creates too big a burden on infrastructure and services like water and policing. Meanwhile, people...praise the industriousness of migrants and say that their host cities rely on their cheap labor not just to survive but to prosper."
Unfortunately, the book includes no photographs of Ashraf or Sethi's other subjects. To get a visual sense of Mohammed Ashraf's life in Old Delhi, visit documentary photographer Jerome Lorieu's website.
By Jo Perry
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