Aman Sethi, a journalist for The Hindu, first met Mohammed Ashraf in December 2005 while reporting on a story about Delhi’s government proposal to provide health insurance for construction workers. Ashraf, according to Sethi, “had been a terrible interview subject”, giving cryptic answers to straightforward questions. Six months later, however, Sethi was back in Sadar Bazaar in north Delhi where he met Ashraf, and this time Sethi was working on a new project—a research fellowship on the life of a mazdoor, a general labourer. As it turns out, Sethi and his editors, displaying canny journalistic instinct, had spotted in Ashraf the potential for a great story. Despite Ashraf’s previous cantankerousness, his quotes, as Sethi put it, “made for excellent copy.”
And thus begins A Free Man, Sethi’s brief yet incredibly entertaining and fast-paced account of the life of Mohammed Ashraf, just one of the many itinerant labourers of India’s thriving informal economy. Through Ashraf, Sethi comes to meet many others—like 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.” There is Kaka, the resident chaiwallah (and later, as it turns out, resident banker) of Bara Tooti, one of the intersections of Sadar road where Ashraf and his friends live. There is also Kalyani, the sole woman in the story (unless you count the various wives, prostitutes, Bollywood starlets, and sisters mentioned in passing) and owner of the illicit bar frequented by Ashraf and his friends, and Satish Kumar, who later falls prey to both illness and the bureaucracy of a capitalist health care system.
Ashraf turns out to be a clever, intensely amusing subject—someone who no doubt was fully aware of his value to Sethi and Sethi’s potential readers, and accordingly played up (or down) his stories. Ashraf can be duplicitous and fractious, and he frequently resists Sethi’s attempts to pin him down and give his life story meaning and shape. “Fuck your timeline,” Ashraf says after Sethi makes yet another attempt to record a chronological account of Ashraf’s piecemeal, hardscrabble life. “For you, all this is research … But for other people, this is life,” he tells Sethi. This is not to say that Ashraf resented Sethi’s presence, or wanted him to leave him alone—on the contrary, he appears to mostly enjoy the attention and to have a chance to spin his stories. Sethi is perhaps trying to give the reader a fuller, and thus more complicated, notion of the urban male labourer of India’s big cities, and thus includes quotes from Ashraf that capture the flavour of the ennui and despair of city life in its poverty and grimness:
“Today he is feeling bored, even depressed, by the chowk, his life, everything. ‘I have no friends here,’ he says. ‘In Dilli there is azadi, but there is also a lot of akelapan, the loneliness of being a stranger in every city.’”
Azadi, or freedom, is what the title of the book alludes to—the notion of being one’s own man without ties to a place, people, or a job. For Ashraf and other (mostly) men like him, it’s not just labour that’s precarious, it’s life. They may not have an actual roof over their heads most nights—as such, they’re often referred to as pavement dwellers. Sethi writes about the violent destruction of slum settlements—home to many of urban migrant labourers—in the name of development, progress, and “beautification”. What may or may not be the corporate media’s version of “news” is simply a bare fact of the precarious life of Ashraf and his fellow mazdoor.
Ashraf describes his system of work to Sethi: “We work when we feel like it”, or rather, work when money is needed, rest when money is enough to tide them over for a week or so. This notion of freedom also structures Ashraf’s personal connections with others. “For Ashraf, a stable friendship is premised on a shared notion of time,” Sethi explains. For people with a family, a stable or semi-stable job and place of residence, and with connections tied to their class position and social status, friendships are taken for granted. For Ashraf and people like him, where tomorrow might literally bring a new city, friendship is fragile and dependent on shared space and time. It comes as no surprise, then, that while there are many reasons why Ashraf and his friends might turn to drink, the means to carve a social space in a ramshackle bar with other people in their position is a key factor.
Sethi, who spent about five years with Ashraf and his crew, shows himself in these pages to be a dogged journalist with an energetic willingness to go where the story takes him—in this case, to go where Ashraf goes. When Ashraf heads to Calcutta towards the end of the book, Sethi goes with him, footing the bill for train tickets and hotel rooms, putting down money for Ashraf’s initial rent, and ironically, losing his wallet. Through it all, the reader is aware of Sethi’s role and is privy to his most immediate impressions and faithful recollections, but I’m never quite sure what Sethi feels or thinks about Ashraf and his friends, or the various forms of marginalisation and injustice they face from a social world constructed to reflect India’s middle and upper-class values.
A Free Man is about a free man from the point of view of a free man—Ashraf’s tenuous connection to the various facts of his life seem to mirror Sethi’s connection to his subject(s). After he leaves Ashraf in Calcutta, Sethi goes off to enjoy a cup of coffee, buy a book, and check his email in the internet café before he boards the train back to Delhi. Earlier, while staying in the hotel room with Ashraf, Sethi observes how Ashraf barely blinks while he watches TV. “It’s been ten years since I watched TV,” Ashraf tells Sethi, adding: “and even then someone else had the remote.” How does this implicate Sethi in his position? Sure, he offers Ashraf money, spends time with him (for his story) and even has his sister help one of Ashraf’s friends and a fellow Bara Tooti resident, Satish, while he’s in the hospital for tuberculosis, but how does Sethi really feel? Is there guilt, shame, anger, confusion?
We never know, though we get some hints from how Sethi occasionally contextualises certain incidents, allowing him to write about how the marginalised and the poorest-of-the-poor are literally picked off Delhi’s streets and incarcerated, never to be heard from again, or how they fall ill with tuberculosis and are subject to chaotic, bungled (i.e., professionalised, bureaucratised) medical procedures that weaken their resistance to the illness. There is a particular stellar section in the book about the cold callousness of a system that allows an institution such as the Beggars Court to exist and the attendant absurdity and comedy of the failed technology of its “Beggar Information System”.
Throughout all of these incidents, however, Sethi remains there but not there, present but curiously distant. I suspect that this was Sethi’s attempt at displacing and undermining his own position—that of the American-educated journalist mining a “free man’s” story of poverty and lack while enjoying the benefits of a system that keep Ashraf and his fellow mazdoor in their place. Perhaps it was Sethi’s attempt to step aside and allow the characters their visibility, an attempt to avoid the pitfalls of middle-class narration of poverty that can all too involve sentimentality, moralising, and judgment. Perhaps. I’m not sure.
The result is that in the creation and the reception of this book, both author and reader are implicated. Perhaps this was Sethi’s intention all along. A laconic narrator prompts a deeper intellectual and affective involvement from the reader. But there are lingering questions about what it means to take the experiences of poor people and shape it into an easily-swallowed narrative, packaged and sold and consumed as a book. If the lesson of A Free Man is that no one is free, then the lesson in the reading is that someone always benefits. In this case, Sethi is the recipient of much deserving praise for the book, yet he is only the messenger. He and his editors knew where to look when they needed excellent copy. What we’re celebrating when we celebrate the success of this book is the poverty and marginalisation that informs Ashraf’s stories and gives it its “authentic” flavour.
At the start of this review I mentioned that I was entertained by this story—and it’s impossible not to be entertained. A Free Man is cleverly-structured and deftly-written; it has all the elements of a picaresque. It reads like an adventure. It moves at a swift pace, it’s short in length, it’s free of the burdens of interpretation and analysis and the awkward, troublesome feelings of its narrator. “Funny and disturbing”, says Arundhati Roy in her blurb, and it’s true: it is funny and I am disturbed—by my well-trained ability to consume this story as just another story among stories and by the way in which this book is received and praised as a triumph for Sethi instead of an indictment of our complicity in a society that allows this to happen. For myself and most other reviewers, this is a “journey” into another kind of life by way of a well-researched, well-written piece of writing. For Sethi, what seems apparent is that this is a job. But as Ashraf reminded us from the start, for “other people”—the people in this book—this is life.