A Free Man: A True Story of Life and Death in Delhi by Aman Sethi
New York. W.W. Norton. 2012. ISBN 9780393088908
Aman Sethi’s A Free Man joins such excellent recent nonfiction accounts of India as William Dalrymple’s Nine Lives, Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, and Sonia Faleiro’s Beautiful Thing. Like the authors of these books, Sethi approaches the complexity of Indian society by telling a life story, that of Mohammed Ashraf, a laborer living on the streets of Delhi. Sethi’s account is distinguished by the way his own persona shapes the book in endearing and often humorous ways.
As he spends time with his interview subjects in one of Delhi’s poor neighborhoods, Sethi embraces and worries about his role as participant journalist. Initially, Sethi drinks and smokes with Ashraf and his companions. “I may just contemplate a hit of that joint—not because I want to, no sir, but because I have to. That joint . . . shall be for research purposes only.” Soon Sethi changes course. “We sat down for a smoke: me with my cigarettes—no more beedis; after a year . . . I realized being one of the boys is an experiment fraught with peril.” Admitting that he often asks “undeniably boring questions,” Sethi discloses a fundamental rift between the way he—as a more affluent, well-educated Indian—and his subjects understand their lives: “I am still trying to build a year-wise timeline of Ashraf’s life but as far as Ashraf is concerned, he was brought up in Patna and is now in Delhi—everything else can only be accessed via oblique enquiries. As a result, every interview is a bit like playing a word association game.”
While the details of Ashraf’s life are compelling, Sethi more significantly captures a philosophical dimension in the lives of Ashraf and other laborers in Delhi. Ashraf seeks a balance between kamai—working for wages—and azadi—freedom. Freedom is often expressed in the following manner. After being slapped by his boss because he missed a day of work, Ashraf “turned around and never went back.” When Sethi asks why, Ashraf replies: “The maalik owns my work, Aman bhai, he doesn’t own me.” While the regularity with which Ashraf loses work and drinks up his earnings seems irresponsible and unhealthy, his effort to retain nominal freedom in a society increasingly structured by the market is inspirational.
Rather than getting caught up in politics or social analysis, Sethi instead reveals the potency of stories in his, Ashraf’s, and the reader’s lives. Ashraf remarks: “funny how every short story is actually just the beginning of a really long one.” At his last meeting with Ashraf, Sethi finally extracts a chronology of Ashraf’s life. It seems, however, as if constructing the strict, linear order that the journalist Sethi has insisted upon somehow deprives Ashraf of a kind of freedom. He says to Sethi: “Now you know everything. What will we talk about if we ever meet again?”
Le Moyne College