This review first appeared in The Asian Review of Books.
“Ashraf, as my editors and I had noted, made for excellent copy,” writes Aman Sethi. This is true. Mohammad Ashraf, who is able to wax eloquent on subjects ranging from the dissection of frogs to the psychology of freedom, is eminently quotable, regularly funny, and has frequent bouts of wisdom. This is enough to make A Free Man a great read. But it is so much more: it is what Arthur Miller calls the tragedy of the common man—the sort that exalts in the “thrust for freedom” and the “revolutionary questioning of the stable environment.”
In this probing book, Sethi follows Ashraf, a daily-wage labourer in Delhi’s Bara Tooti Chowk (“the largely empty space between the backpacker havens of Paharganj and picturesque Chandni Chowk”) through the unpleasant vagaries of his routine and carefully records his experiences. Whether it is the hierarchy of construction workers, the secret pockets of a mazdoor (labourer)’s outfit, or the darkly funny interview with an officer of the Department of Social Welfare that has promised to make Delhi “beggar free” for the Commonwealth Games in 2010, Sethi, who intended the portrait of one man in one place, perhaps unwittingly becomes the chronicler of Delhi’s marginalised proletariat. Just as in Arthur Miller, there is the underlying critique of the capitalist state that exploits labour through an unjust mechanism of valuation. There is also the intensely human aspect of the critique through Sethi’s personal negotiations with the demographic that he is studying.
Sethi finds that for purposes of his research he will have to smoke too much ganja, drink too much whiskey, and, above all, be a “medium-type friend” to Ashraf—the sort of friend who will answer drunken calls made in the middle of the night, take a young boy with tuberculosis to the hospital, lend capital to the high-risk entrepreneurs of Bara Tooti, and still realise that only so much friendship is possible, that “getting along is largely besides the point in Bara Tooti where the jokes are dark and largely unintelligible to outsiders, and conversations tangential and prone to the most unlikely non-sequiturs.”
But Sethi is no sad-eyed romantic. Nor is he the sort to hide his emotions within the disguise of objectivity, although he is objective. He is voluble, sarcastic, friendly, and sympathetic by turns. His kindness is evident, but what makes his kindness more immediate is how frustrated and jaded he regularly feels with the capricious toxicity of the male bonding.
Rehaan, another medium-type friend of Ashraf’s who is usually more a listener than a talker, tells Sethi in a moment of sudden candour: "This is a brutal city, Aman bhai. This is a city that eats you raw [...] For you, all this is research: a boy tries to sell his kidney, you write it down in your notebook. A man goes crazy somewhere between Delhi and Bombay, you store it in your recorder. But for other people, this is life." Sethi too realises that his narrative is inextricably bound to the city’s particular brokenness, adding, after reading a report on mass hysteria about an imagined predator, that it is "a city of the exhausted, the distressed, and the restless, struggling with the uncertainties of eviction and unemployment; a city of twenty million histrionic personas resiliently absorbing the day’s glancing blows, only to return home and tenderly claw themselves to sleep."
From the minutiae of the working-classes, the latter sections of the book instead turn to the insecurities of urban reconfiguration. As disease claims their lives and the state claims their space, unhappiness and squalor unhinge the men of Bara Tooti, sweeping them indelicately into an alarming awareness of their mortality. They disperse, change, move, and make plans in their attempts to escape and survive, to not be swallowed whole and eaten raw by a city that permanently seems a work in progress. But as Rehaan says, “Finally, how much can you run, Aman bhai?”
A focal point of A Free Man is the author’s evolving determination to set a lucid timeline for Ashraf’s life. Along the way, many adventures are had and many truths are unearthed; but it takes Sethi a long time indeed to get at the timeline he so desires. Ashraf, a most modern man, sees no reason for chronology or linearity or even accuracy. His stories are deliberately ambiguous. He casually tells Sethi that he went to Patna for a while between his time in Bombay and Delhi, making it seem like a necessary stop-over; much later, Sethi discovers that “a while” was eight years—a time period during which Ashraf married a woman, fell in love with her, fathered her two children, and abandoned his family. Much, much later, Sethi comes to find that it was in Calcutta that Ashraf lived and got married, before moving to Patna. By the time Sethi finally pins Ashraf down to a timeline, the message is clear: in so personal a history, speciousness is as relevant as specificity and close retelling must understand and even embrace the irrational memory of the afflicted, making space for the individual in public record.
Arthur Miller once wrote: “I believe that the common man is as apt a subject for tragedy in its highest sense as kings were […] It is time, I think, that we who are without kings, took up this bright thread of our history and followed it to the only place it can possible lead in our time—the heart and spirit of the average man.” Books like A Free Man and Sonia Faliero’s Beautiful Thing are tragedies of this order—violently personal, profoundly human, and very, very frightening.