Wednesday, 30 January 2013

A Free Man, Aman Sethi


In this landmark work of reportage, Aman Sethi sets out to understand the life of Mohammad Ashraf, a daily-wage worker in Delhi’s Bara Tooti Chowk. Spending the greater part of five years in ‘the largely empty space between the backpacker haven of Paharganj and picturesque Chandni Chowk’, where daily-wage transactions take place, he learns, over alcohol, tea and ganja, the story of Ashraf’s life. Bringing labour into the narrative of the city, Sethi chronicles the minutiae that make up the lives of the labourers who are building Delhi: from the boiled eggs, sweet tea, varieties of raw alcohol that can quickly nullify a day’s earnings, secret pockets stitched into clothes, and unconventional banking arrangements to the vulnerability of the labourers to the kidney mafia and their survival in a network of systems that should serve but mostly alienates. The vignettes come in asides to the running conversations with Ashraf, throwing light on the lives of countless invisible men. A Free Man gives us the lens to view a contemporary transformation. Deeply insightful and compulsively readable, it is a humane, intimate and compelling account of an individual and a group of people who are most often explained away in a statistic.

My Review

I’ve always been told a very famous Hindi proverb as a kid when I didn't want to study.

‘Padhoge Likhoge banoge nawab, kheloge koodoge banoge kharab’

This is one novel that very well defies the proverb. Md. Ashraf studied biology, became a butcher, a tailor, and an electrician's apprentice. He is now a homeless day laborer and has managed to survive the brutalities of the capital with a small piece of land in Old Delhi. The story revolves around this man and his concepts of freedom and humanity.

Delhi has always come across as a very brutal city. There is hardly any room for kindness. Its all about people running for that one thing from where their lives is no less than that of a king but what they end up with what is just enough for them to survive. Some even fail to do that. One of them is definitely Ashraf. There were hardly any expectations that I had. By the time I finished up on the first chapter, I was moved yet disappointed. Moved, needless to say because the world seemed like a dark tunnel with no light guiding me. Disappointed, because the language didn’t live up to the levels of the concept. Gradually, I reached a point of saturation. At that point, one could not decipher between the narrator and the character. They seemed to be one. The wall between the researcher and his findings broke down and it gave you an illusion that as a work of literature pleases you, but as a human makes you feel ashamed of yourself. The book is an eye-opener. It makes you see things which everyone of us has knowingly ignored. A recommended book? Yes. Definitely!



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