Summary and book reviews of A Free Man by Aman Sethi

A Free Man

A True Story of Life and Death in Delhi

By Aman Sethi

A Free Man

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Book Summary

Like Dave Eggers’s Zeitoun and Alexander Masters’s Stuart, this is a tour de force of narrative reportage.

Mohammed Ashraf studied biology, became a butcher, a tailor, and an electrician’s 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 world’s largest cities. Sethi recounts Ashraf’s 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.

1

'At forty,' says Mohammed Ashraf, delicately picking at the joint's smouldering cherry, 'a man starts to fear strangers.'

'Accha?'

'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 crack—like 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 ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse

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 Members Only (1016 words).

Media Reviews
Author Blurb Siddhartha Mukherjee, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Emperor of All Maladies
Funny, poignant, and deeply moving, A Free Man is an extraordinary vignette into an extraordinary life.

Author Blurb Sylvia Nasar, author of A Beautiful Mind and Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius
A Free Man is stunning. It reminds me of that Victorian masterpiece of investigative journalism, Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and London Poor. Aman Sethi ‘gets’ modern India better than any other journalist I know. Not only is he a remarkable reporter and storyteller, but he possesses a novelist’s ear for language, sense of the absurd, and perfect pitch. I’m bowled over, totally.

Author Blurb Katherine Boo, author of Behind the Beautiful Forevers
A deeply moving, funny, and brilliantly written account from one of India’s most original new voices.

Author Blurb Michael Ondaatje, author of The English Patient
A Free Man is a brilliant capturing of the language and bloodstream of a city. Aman Sethi has made a book that’s remarkable in its voice and evocation.

Author Blurb Arundhati Roy, author of The God of Small Things
Funny and disturbing.

Publisher's Weekly

Starred Review. Ashraf’s voice - acerbic, bombastic, and philosophical - makes for wonderful reading, and Sethi’s remarkable prose and impeccable sense of timing renders his subjects with pathos and humor.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. Alternately sad, defiant, carefree and understated, this journey into a world hidden in plain sight is well worth taking.

Reader Reviews
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 (...   Read More

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The Impetus for and Implemenation of A Free Man

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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