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.
This article was originally published in October 2012, and has been updated for the
October 2013 paperback release.
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