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Book Review - A Free Man: A True Story of Life and Death in Delhi, By Aman Sethi
For an article on construction workers in Dehli, journalist Aman Sethi had interviewed Mohammed Ashraf, a homeless mazdoor, the Hindi term for “worker.” So Sethi sought out Ashraf again for his book “A Free Man,” in which he explains, “I want to understand … the life of the laborer.”
But Asharaf had been a terrible interview subject for the earlier article. “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.’”
Ashraf isn’t a particularly good subject for this book project, either, though Sethi does well at capturing the language and the street life in a neighborhood that “shows up on tourist maps of Delhi as [a] large empty space.” Ashraf, like millions of people around the globe, is “free” in the sense that he has nothing left to lose.
Sethi spent months hanging out with Ashraf and his friends, smoking joints, drinking cheap liquor, taking hours of recordings and often feeling frustrated: “Not only is it being recorded, I will be forced to listen to it when I review my tapes, forced to transcribe it in the hope that someone would have said something memorable.”
In Delhi, homelessness is an accepted and normal condition, part of the structure of the economy. Sethi gives a view that is neither tragedy nor exposé, but simply a way of life that involves accepting things as they come and leaving things behind when they go. Ashraf’s friend Munna tells about the time he borrowed a bicycle from his uncle, stopped to get a drink at the “last chance” for cheap liquor and got on a bus, “watching as the driver expertly negotiated cars, buses, tractors, and swarms of bicycles. Bicycles? Wait, he had a bicycle.” The bicycle had been stolen by then. Munna’s uncle had humiliated him when he asked to borrow the bike, so, remembering that treatment, Munna caught a train to another town and didn’t return for 10 years. “By now his uncle would surely have forgotten about the bicycle.”
Ashraf, like Munna, is an alcoholic and binge drinker. They both work just long enough to save some money and then take a week or two off, drinking it all away, until they are scrambling for the proverbial two rupees (the cost of a public bathroom to take a shit). Indian cities have laws designed to make sure that workers don’t get drunk too early in the day, before they’ve done some work. The country’s (and, ultimately, the world’s) economy depends on this casual labor force that has limited ambition and places few demands on society.
Sethi illuminates their street lives,but not much of their actual work lives. He’s not usually able to go along. In one memorable episode, however, he vividly describes the frantic unloading of cargo from a passenger train in the brief time it stops in a station — a process involving sheer physical labor, as well as the need to bribe various officials to keep the train from leaving before it’s unloaded.
Ashraf and his friends have not always lacked ambition. Ashraf has some education. At various times he’s hatched schemes to start small businesses and, indeed, had such a business in the past. For complex reasons, it ended up failing. Sethi decides to get Ashraf back on his feet and finances a trip to Calcutta, where Ashraf has a successful relative who might set him up in business. Instead, Ashraf gets mixed up with a bar that supplies him liquor while safeguarding his tools and making sure he finds jobs to keep the money flowing.
It’s left to the reader to reach the epiphany that Ashraf’s symbiotic relationship with this bar is a microcosm of the way these laborers function in the Indian economy. Sethi never connects the dots. Though he clearly cares about his subjects, he has a peculiarly bland approach to them, probably from a desire to be nonjudgmental. It’s easy, however, to read between the lines and realize that the alcohol and the lack of ambition result from the fact that there is nobody to catch these men when they fall — not even family members. Failure is easy; success is almost impossible.
The men are careful not to get too attached to each other. They can leave without notice and die without warning. One has a psychotic break; two die in falls on construction sites; and two others, including Ashraf, die of tuberculosis. Ashraf, dead in his 40s, leaves behind a wife and two kids he hasn’t seen in decades and whose names he refused to reveal.
Part of Sethi’s frustration is that he’s unable to get a coherent life story from any of these subjects, though he does finally get Ashraf’s chronology. Part of the frustration with the book is that even though the conditions of these men’s lives elicit compassion, you’re left feeling you don’t really know them.
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