Aman Sethi’s debut novel A Free Man is set in the marginalised world of Bara Tooti Chowk – Old Delhi’s labour market. It brings to light the otherwise invisible stories of the labourers who live and work on the streets. Their lives are uncertain, dangerous and often seemingly futile. They do not strive for success; instead they face a daily struggle for survival.
The story primarily focuses on Mohammad Ashraf, a butcher cum tailor cum construction worker cum painter, who spends his earnings at an illegal makeshift bar. During the five years that Sethi converses with him, Ashraf provides snippets of his history alongside his philosophical take on life. Despite his extremely diverse CV, Ashraf teaches Sethi that a day labourer will not take simply any job; they seek work with ‘the perfect balance of kamai and azadi’: you must earn enough (kamai) to get by but must not lose your freedom (azadi).
We gain an insight of the importance of freedom and the many ways of fighting to maintain it. Inspiringly, Ashraf retains his dignity despite the adverse situations that he finds himself in. He had a wife who left him and took their two children with her: he cannot even remember his son’s name. Later in the story he contracts multi-drug resistant tuberculosis and has to endure excruciating MDR treatment. When Sethi’s wallet is stolen, Ashraf’s nonchalant reaction speaks volumes about the chasm between the first and the third worlds. He says: ‘this happens to me all the time. Wake up feeling like I am going to conquer the world, only to be stabbed in the back.’
It is only when Sethi returns to India after a stint in New York that he is able to complete the missing pieces of Ashraf’s history. Once his timeline is complete, Ashraf no longer wishes to look backwards, he will only talk about the future. There is no fairy-tale ending, and neither can there be one. Sethi is brutally realistic about Ashraf’s prospects yet he shares in his hope and pragmatic optimism. Sethi’s non-judgemental, open approach means that Ashraf becomes more than the journalist’s narrative subject, he becomes his friend.
This poignant narrative reportage is a true eye-opener that provides us access to the inspirational musings of a poor homeless man from the streets of India.
A Free Man: A True Story of Life and Death in Delhi is available now from Random House
Words: Jessica Loveridge