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 ...
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. At the end of the book, day laborer, Mohammed Ashraf, remains a sketch rather than a full portrait. He doesn't feel whole but 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.
(Reviewed by Jo Perry).
Full Review (1016 words).
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 ...
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