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.
This review was originally published in October 2012, and has been updated for the October 2013 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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