A Free Man
Ashraf, Kalyani, Lalloo. Dehadi labourers. A masterfully told tale of their lives, their azaadi, their kamai.
“I’m trying to write a book.”
“But who will want to read it?”
“I don’t know. I suppose my friends will buy it and maybe a few people interested in Delhi.”
Aman Sethi is being modest. I can think of many people who will enjoy A Free Man, journalist Aman Sethi’s first book (non-fiction).
A few people interested in Delhi.
A few journalists.
A few people who want to step into the lives of migrant labourers.
A few people who have heard that A Free Man is a great read.
A Free Man is about a group of “medium-type friends” friends. They are all daily wage earners (dehadi labourers) who live in the heart of Delhi’s Sadar Bazaar. Ashraf Bhai, a safediwallah, is the central character and his universe includes Lalloo, Rehaan, Kaka, Munna, Lambu, Satish, Kalyani, JP Singh and Bhagwan Das. The book captures their lives – their work, their recreation, their philosophy and their troubles.
To be honest, I didn’t expect to enjoy the book. I expected it to be informative. I thought it might introduce me to a world far removed from mine. I expected to feel virtuous after reading the book. To my surprise, I thoroughly enjoyed A Free Man.
For starters, I can relate to the book and the characters in it. Don’t nod your head in disbelief. Take Ashraf Bhai’s definition of friendship – “medium type friends are those who do not make chootiyas of each other”. It’s a great definition and a great yardstick for judging our own friendships. Talking about friends, my peer group (varied professionals on the verge of turning 40) is obsessed with striking the perfect work-life balance. But we don’t know what that balance is. Again, Ashraf Bhai sheds some light – “the ideal job has the perfect balance of kamai and azaadi”.
My entrepreneur friends will nod in agreement with Kalyani’s business principles. Kalyani runs a popular liquor den in Sadar Bazaar and she believes that “law enforcement (is) necessary for a favourable investment climate”.
We are all familiar with the words – mistry, beldaar, karigar, mazdoor – but there are nuances that we are unaware of. Aman Sethi fills the gap. For instance, he offers a detailed description of the role of the head kasai in a halal shop. Did you know that a skilled head kasai can turn a live chicken weighing 1 kilogram into 1.5 kilograms of chopped meat (post-stripping of feathers and redundant body parts)? It’s certainly useful as a customer to know how that’s done! Sethi’s description of a day in the life of a “head foreman of one of Old Delhi Station’s biggest contractors” is riveting stuff. As is the instinct and experience displayed by “a senior officer at the Beggars Court in North Delhi”. The officer can tell “a beggar from a working man who is merely poor” by “looking at the hands”. The approach is a tad simplistic but sounds efficient!
Sethi’s writing style is vivid. You can really feel the slap when Ashraf describes it – “it was like Phaat, not two quick phut-phut-type smacks. No, it was a chaanta – phataack”. The author adopts a different but equally effective way to describe Ashraf – “a short man, a slight man, a dark man, a sharp man, a lithe man, a polite man”. In non-fiction works, I often look for photographs. There are none in A Free Man, but the writing brings the labourers of Sadar Bazaar to life in vivid colour.
The author, Aman Sethi, is there throughout the book. He is there in every chapter and yet his presence is not distracting. The focus is on Ashraf and his gang of friends. But once in a while Sethi steps in to take the conversation forward or to give the reader context. Many of the characters in the book face great professional uncertainty and personal upheaval during a government demolition drive. “Working class settlements like Yamuna Pushta, Nangla Machi, and Sanjay Amar Colony were flattened by government demolition squads to make way for broader roads, bigger power stations, and the Commonwealth Games”. Some of the labourers lost their home and profession in one go.
A Free Man is set in Delhi, but its cast of characters comes from all over India. They also go wherever they can find work. And the reader journeys with them to Patna, Calcutta, Bombay, Punjab, Sitapur (Uttar Pradesh) and even Calangute Beach in Goa. The other more sobering tour is that of India’s public hospitals. From the Bara Hindu Rao Hospital and the Rajan Babu Tubercolosis Hospital in Delhi to the KS Rai TB Hospital in Calcutta, Aman Sethi offers a rare insight into India’s healthcare system. There is treatment available for people like Ashraf because of some heroes within the system -doctors and staff who are beating the odds to treat as many patients as possible.
Aman Sethi tells me he didn’t write this book to sensitise or sermonise. He was just interested in telling a story. Whether the author likes it or not, A Free Man has sensitised me without sermonising. So the next time I’m getting my home painted and the crew disappears mid-work for a few days, I won’t lose my cool. I will assume that they are exercising their “azaadi” and will be back soon enough when the money runs out and it’s time for “kamai”.