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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 (honored brother) drinking country liquor at Kaka’s tea shop listening to how a mazdoor (day laborer) finds work and spends his wages. A year or two later, you are at the train station, discovering why Rehaan’s muscular physique makes him an asset for unloading cargo off the train. The events of his life and keeping track of his days seem like a myriad of untangled jargon. The same patterns for a mazdoor in New Delhi is repetitious, blurring minutes, hours, years, and decades. The joy, freedom, and hatred of such a life belongs to Mohammed Ashraf until Aman Sethi seeks to enter into his past, present, and future, recording each conversation in hopes to formulate a timeline of Mohammed Ashraf’s life. Ashraf does not look for relief, as he is a lafunter (works when he can), living the rest of his time as he pleases, continuing in the company of his bahi’s (friends like brothers). From stupor states of drunkness, to repressed memories, to hospital visits, you and Aman are present to every detail and emotion pulsing from Ashraf’s arms. If you have never been to India, the street language and geography of New Dehli can be disorienting. Thankfully, Aman includes an explanation of the New Dehli’s street slang in American terms on the last pages of the book.
A Free Man, based on a true story By Aman Sethi, carries you through human natures response to human nature: freedom, solitude, forsakenness, and being a stranger. “When you first come here, there is a lot of hope, abhilasha. You think anything is possible. You have heard all the stories of people who have made it big in the city. Slowly, as time goes by, you start wondering what you are doing.”
The events of Ashraf’s life are choppy. It is only after you have exasperated your empathy toward him, listened to the adventures of the cargo loading dock, that you are soothingly brought back to sitting at the table with Ashraf drinking your country liquor once again. Author Aman Sethi pulls you into the hearts of Mohammed Ashraf and his friends, Lalloo, and Rehaan and gives you the language and the heart behind why Ashraf has the barriers and the vulnerabilities he does, much like the city of New Delhi. It all began while Aman was on assignment for the press when he met Ashraf, and Aman is clear to let readers know he is a reporter gaining the perspective of these men. While following behind Aman, sifting through the broken pieces of each mans life and the connections weaved together as they live, breathe, work, drink, and sleep in New Dehli, you can’t help but dig up your own memories of interactions with homeless men in your own life. The clock hands move backward one evening and Ashraf recalls his memories before beginning his travels to New Delhi. A marriage union at sixteen, abandoned by compromise of pocket picking from his wife to prove how well the family was doing to her mother, a learned skillset of skinning, boiling, and cutting a chicken in record speed so the shop owner is satisfied, and the memory of the cold metal in his hands when he first fired a gun into the open street all have long been forgotten before Aman started probing Ashraf for details. A step back to reality, and a new duffle bag and a hospital visit to bed 32 are the continued efforts from Aman to keep in touch with Asraf. This true story reminds you that each has a story to tell, each has a reason their existence has become what it is, and each has joy, pain, love, laughter, and the pursuit of freedom.