Author: Aman Sethi
Publisher: Vintage Books / Random House India
‘A Free Man’ by Aman Sethi is humorous yet disturbing work of non-fiction. The main subject of this remarkable work of reportage is Mohammed Ashraf, a 40-year-old safediwallah (painter) and construction worker. Sethi, a journalist with The Hindu, first encounters Ashraf while working on a story about various ‘types’ of construction workers (namely mistrys, beldars, karigars, mazdoor, rickshaw-pullers, plumbers). Subsequently, when he needed personnel for a research project he’d taken up on “the life of the labourer”, he goes back to Ashraf.
Over a period of time, he forms a bond with Ashraf and his labourer friends — the crazy Lalloo, the muscular Rehaan, the dying Satish, Kaka – the tea seller, and many others. He smokes with them, drinks with them, gets stoned with them, and becomes more involved in the lives of his subjects than a journalist
might be expected to during a project.
Ashraf has made a living as a butcher and tailor; he’s sold lemons and lottery tickets, but in another life he could well have been a philosopher. His musings offer deep insights into the struggle and, poignantly, the solitude of poverty. Trapped by his almost complete lack of power, he’s obsessed with exercising the little power he does have.
About 90% of India’s working population belongs to the unorganised sector, and people like Ashraf would figure close to the bottom of this level. Indeed, the labourer class exists in the consciousness of the country’s elite more as statistic and subject of policy debates, than as living people with names and even lives. The achievement of Sethi’s book is to extract a person from that statistic and paint his life in all its moving humanness.
The most poignant passage in the book appears after Sethi has extracted from Ashraf what he had wanted right from Day 1 — the ‘timeline’ of his life. By then, in five years, Ashraf is now in a TB hospital, weakened by the disease, exhausted by the treatment.
The labourer tells the journalist, “That’s it, Aman bhai. Now you know everything about me — sab kuch. Like a government form: name, date of birth, mother’s name, place of residence, everything. Our faces are pasted in your notebook, our voices are locked in your recorder — me, Lalloo, Rehaan, Kaka, JP Pagal, everyone. Now you know everything. What will we talk about if we ever meet again?” It is moments like these in the book which are so rich of irony and tragic that your heart will go out to these characters. This is a book which is to be read in appalled silence. It conveys the truth of the nation but unfortunately, common people like you and me can do little to improve the situation. The one who can i.e. government and the bureaucrats do little to ameliorate their current condition and as a result, they are stuck and suck in the vicious circle of poverty.