'I'm looking for a man named Mohammed Ashraf,' I said to a short, scruffy man who identified himself as Lalloo. 'I had interviewed him for a story last year. I'm from the press.'
Mohammed Ashraf is 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.
I first met him in December 2005 while working on a story on a proposed Delhi government bill to provide health insurance for construction workers. I had spoken with all the experts, got all my quotes, and arrived early one morning to meet some construction workers and fit their views into a story that, for all purposes, I had already written. As I recall, Ashraf had been a terrible interview subject. He had refused to answer any questions directly, choosing instead to offer up quotes like 'If you had studied psychology, you would know that if you sleep without washing your feet, you get nightmares.' After this cryptic insight he had clammed up and refused to offer his opinion on the Building and Other Construction Workers Act of 1996 and its proposed successor.
Six months later I was back in Sadar Bazaar, this time on a fellowship, searching for that very same Ashraf with the bombastic quotes. It would be a struggle to convince him to actually answer my questions, but I had time and Ashraf, as my editors and I had noted, made for excellent copy.
'Ashraf? ASHRAF!' Lalloo shouted as we picked our way through the maze of alleys behind Bara Tooti Chowk, Sadar Bazaar. 'Look what a nice angrezi murgi we've found you!'
'An AC-type murgi,' added Rehaan, a muscular young boy of about eighteen, who sidled up to the two of us, and had crushed, filled, and smoked a joint by the time we found Ashraf nursing a hangover in a shady corner of Barna Galli.
'You've come back,' said Ashraf, pulling on his beedi. 'Are you working on another story?'
'No, no,' I replied. 'This time it's a research project. I want to understand the mazdoor ki zindagithe life of the labourer. I want to interview you some more.'
'What happened to the last one? Did you bring a cutting of your article?'
'Well, bring it next time. Do you want some tea?' Peering closely at the magazine I brought on my next visit, Ashraf tried not to sound disappointed. 'But this doesn't have my photo! This after you made me pose with a brush in one hand.'
'But I quoted you,' I pointed out. 'Thrice.'
'I can see that. But no photo.'
And that's how I fell in with Ashraf, Lalloo, and Rehaan. They made for an odd crew: Ashraf, the quick-witted dreamer of schemes, Lalloo, who walked with a limp and served as a foil for Ashraf's ideas, and Rehaan, the quiet boy with a smouldering joint who didn't say very much but listened to everything. It's hard to tell if they even got along, but then getting along is largely besides the point in Bara Tooti where the jokes are dark and largely unintelligible to outsiders, and conversations tangential and prone to the most unlikely non sequiturs.
'I knew this man,' Rehaan once said, apropos of nothing, 'who used to inject his testicles to get high. What do you think of that, Aman bhai?'
Nothing, Rehaan. To be honest, nothing at all. 'Aman bhai?' Despite his joke all those months ago about me roaming around Bara Tooti Chowk like a headless chicken, I have forgiven Rehaan. He is a polite boy. Like now, for instance, he jogs me out of my reverie and hands me the joint.
'Ah, the joint,' I mutter incoherently. I really should not take a hit of this. But after months of listening to the three complain about the perils of construction work, the horrors wreaked by the police and the sorrow of exile, this is the first time I have been invited along to do something fun. My recorder appears to have died of its own accord. Perhaps if I continue to take notes, at least some good will come of this evening.
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.
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