Review: A Free Man: A True Story of Life and Death in Delhi by Aman Sethi Print E-mail

free man(Los Angeles Review of Books November 1, 2012)

Let Us Now Praise Free Men

If you're one of the unorganized working poor who inhabit the grimmest parts of Delhi, India, you’re probably a mazdoor, or laborer — late teens or early twenties, male, unskilled. To earn your rupees, you carry bags of cement at building sites, whitewash a staircase, paint a house. If you make enough in one week, you take the next week off. Then, you can eat, drink, and smoke the money away, in part, because there’s not much of it and because the jobs are plentiful; you just have to show up every day by the side of the road at six in the morning. You might work one season, lay off for another, ride the trains or catch a bus for another menial job elsewhere. You’ve been known to leave (abandon, some might say) a needy family, a nagging wife, a brood of children you’ve grown tired of. You might also blow off your birth family, live anonymously in Delhi’s (or Calcutta’s or Mumbai’s) frenzied quarters where no one knows (or cares) whence you came.

As a mazdoor, you have no skills like carpentry, plumbing, cooking; those involve an apprenticeship, a master teacher, tools. You need some training to be a rickshaw puller, house porter, or cigarette seller, but more a talent for staying in one place and following orders. But that’s a headache a mazdoor doesn’t need. It’s much easier if you show up, stoop and load and carry and dump, collect the cash, hang out drunk or stoned on the street, sleep where you finish off a bottle. Your other name is lafunter: a lay-about, a slug. So what if passersby regard you as such. That’s what you’re doing, maybe half the time. You may not get paid right away because the boss juggles credit as he goes. End of the month, perhaps. At least you’re not indentured like bonded laborers or seasonal workers who pay to be organized. You can always borrow a rupee from a pal or a shopkeeper for a chai. Despite the average 88-degree heat in Delhi, India’s capital city of 22 million, you live outdoors. You just unfurl your bedroll and use a bag, stuffed with your jacket, for a pillow. You’re no slum dweller: they have shanties, a board bed, a cardboard roof. No, you’re a pavement dweller.

If you’re addicted to smoking weed or beedis, the hand-rolled cheroot, the habit alone probably won’t terminate your life. For one, you won’t live that long, and for another, you have no health benefits. Beedis may make a week of no work or a night of aimlessness bearable. For quick fixes, you may have to beg, even though begging has been criminalized: some judges throw you in jail for months. A first offense may be a fine, an existential joke on the beggar. What, I go beg to get the money?

Despite your freedom and solitude, you need to watch the booze. Since you pay very little for paneer and roti at Kaka’s tea shop in the Baba Tooti section of Sadar Bazaar, try not to spend the rest of your wages on Everyday, the people’s whiskey. As you know, your stomach will burn for days.

Of the many opportunistic ailments, the worst contagion that stalks you is tuberculosis, whose twenty-first century strains are already drug-resistant. If you acquire TB, it’s not that you can’t be treated in the hospitals as a last resort — if you wait too long. But it’s a mix of your wanderlust and mulishness that pushes you back onto the street instead of resting in the ward for months as the doctor prescribes. Your desire to be free, so you can lose your way once more, and, temporarily, beat the odds, is also what kills you.


Into this grind of labor and lie-about come two men who spend five years, off and on, together — the mazdoor, Mohammed Ashraf, and the journalist, Aman Sethi. Sethi, an award-winning correspondent for The Hindu newspaper, immerses himself in the lives of Ashraf and his fellow workers. Their catch-as-catch-can partnership has as much intimacy as evasion. For both, it’s in the conflict between trust and suspicion that the real story of A Free Man lies. There, the class differences of these two hustlers entangle, which, without the reporter’s insistence, would never have happened.

Who is Ashraf? He is “short and stubby, with a narrow but muscular chest and small, broad hands balanced on strong, flexible wrists.” He’s a natural mazdoor, Sethi writes, as though he’s built for the job or, as India’s 90 centuries have decreed, jobs exist so men like him will be born to do them. Though Ashraf is assigned his role, he’s got some gumption. He’s saved a little money, bought some goods, marked them up, sold them quickly at market, then reordered. But the pressure of turnarounds and the fickleness of luck easily outlast Ashraf who finds that such plans require salesmanship and patience, sameness and responsibility — virtues he lacks.

Yet he sees such failures as adventures, not setbacks. In the book’s first half, Ashraf’s pluses push back his minuses. He’s in the prime of his work life; he treasures his solitude; he thinks himself the freest of men. Trouble is largely forestalled. The keen-eyed Sethi, however, sees the worsening cycle of self-abuse.

Ashraf’s appetite for work and alcohol varies inversely. The more he works, the less he drinks; he eats better, his face fills out, he gets his salt-and-pepper hair coloured boot-polish black, and he spouts irreverent verses. This virtuous feedback loop continues till work runs out, at which point Ashraf and [his friend] Lalloo drink away the money they have saved over weeks of work. Ashraf’s cheeks start to hollow, he stops shaving, the hair dye fades away.

Today, his hands are trembling and his hair looks like it has been trimmed with garden shears.

Ashraf’s ups and downs are cumulative. His body can take only so much. Less work is never restive: just the opposite. Binge drinking batters him anew. A reader might conclude that Ashraf would grow tired of the nightly whiskey, the beedis, the ganja, the sloth, the complaining, the infrequent prostitute — and that he would realize these dalliances indenture him. But that’s not how he sees it. “Today I can be in Delhi. Tomorrow I could well be in a train halfway across the country; the day after I can return. This is a freedom […] Isn’t that so?”

It is and it isn’t. It takes the whole book to get what we expect all along — freedom is enslavement, back-breaking labor cripples you, diseases are catchy. It’s a strange liquidity that waters the dreams of hod carriers and the fate they know is coming. Still, the mazdoors engage a kind of activist lethargy. They thrive on disorganization, live outside of time, or are content to exist in a perpetual present.

Sethi writes of this as he watches the lackadaisical Lalloo, a mazdoor and Ashraf’s only friend. “For Lalloo, entire weeks run into each other before he senses their passing. Most events occur either too fast to register, or too slowly to notice. Lalloo doesn’t even know how long it has been since he came to Delhi, since he went home, since he last spoke to his wife. Yes,” Sethi is surprised to learn, “Lalloo has a wife,” a woman whose existence he hears of second-hand, one of those throwaway facts like bones tossed to emaciated dogs.


The way we know of Ashraf and his cohorts is through Sethi’s chutzpah. As a meddler, he goes all out: he tokes up and drinks with the mazdoors; he lends them money; he buys them tools (at one point, Sethi finances a move, lodging, and tools for Ashraf in Calcutta); he sits with them in the morning, dreading work, or in the evening under an eave, dodging the rain, his tape recorder logging hundreds of hours; he answers their questions about his hopes for the very book we’re reading in whose truthfulness they don’t care; and he needles them, principally, to get the goods on Ashraf, a nagging that more often shuts the mazdoors up rather than opens their spigots.

Despite the time spent, Sethi struggles to uncover Ashraf’s many tantalizing secrets. As an alternative, he hears the other denizens of Bara Tooti tell him about their resilience. There’s the tale of the 22-year-old who, to remain a mazdoor, sells a kidney. There’s the woman who runs an illegal bar and, staying in one place and making payoffs, is successful. There’s the barber at the TB hospital who has hovered over the mouths of countless contagious patients, one of the rare saints. There’s the young orphan who ends up in the TB hospital, stoically abiding a cruel end. Because of, or despite, these fates, Sethi notes, each of them clutches a dream: “Everyone at Bara Tooti has at least one good idea that they are convinced will make them unimaginably wealthy.”

In Ashraf, Sethi has met his match: the most frustrating element is assembling Ashraf’s timeline, which he can never finish. It’s one of the prime ironies of A Free Man: how much the author hoped to reveal about Ashraf after their five somewhat flinty years — and how few truths he could claim. The black holes in Ashraf’s life are unarchived, forgotten. If anything, Ashraf seems to have relished refusing to give Sethi an explained and considered life.

Capturing this ambiguity in Ashraf is one of Sethi’s well-played hands. After Ashraf goes on a three-day bender, Sethi finds him impenetrable, unresponsive. Only Lalloo can explain his behavior: “It’s been ten years since Ashraf spoke to his mother […] he’s terrified there will be no one to look for him when he’s gone.”

But the characterization doesn’t fit. This is what Lalloo wants us to think about Ashraf. It is also what we want to believe about Delhi’s urban poor — that if we put ourselves in their place, they will have consciences like ours. But this stratum, beaten down by themselves and others, holds on because it has outlawed regret, especially as it’s sought by naïve intruders like Sethi. Just because Ashraf won’t talk about his past doesn’t mean he’s ashamed or guilt-ridden by it. It’s not that at all. In fact, to grok the point, we have to flip the narrative focus on its head: A Free Man is as much Sethi’s story as it's Ashraf’s.

Sethi is a tourist in Bara Tooti. A graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism, he brings along values that Ashraf and the gang do not share. Ownership and stable relationships. Safety and individualism. Conscience and self-improvement. If the book has a theme, this is it. In the West, with its young, wealth-bred democracies, we are possessed by inalienable rights and individual pursuits; in India, where birth-fate determines so much, millions of people still reject the colonial mission to reshape their society around Western ideals.

Ashraf says, the less you know about me, the more mysterious I am, which includes marking me an individual when I prefer to be a self abuzz in a beehive of selves. Selves are formed primarily by the values of sameness, not personhood. Were Ashraf an individual, he’d be like Sethi. But he’s not. Except for blood and bones, he’s nothing like him. Which doesn’t make Ashraf any less. Like Camus, he bleeds for his fellow mazdoors, especially the young ones he befriends, who have not grown as jaded as he has. Not surprisingly, the book’s most affecting chapter is devoted to Satith, a young, orphaned TB patient whom Sethi shepherds through the hospital system, to whom the inevitable happens, and for whom all grieve.


Reading A Free Man, I was reminded of the fount of the immersion narrative: James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Agee’s book was based on the eight weeks in 1936 he spent with three Alabama sharecropping families. Their Depression-era poverty, in Agee’s ornate pen, sings with a kind of “sublime quality,” as one critic noted, squalor empathically drawn. Published in 1941, the work was judged a grand experiment in naturalistic journalism, an emotional narrative whose true subject was the author’s feelings, and a leaden failure of overbearing compassion. As well as Agee depicted these tenant farmers, he also canonized them — they were his experience.

Immersion journalism need not make the author a partner in the tale, as it is with Agee: read Dave Eggers’s Zeitoun, whose all-seeing reporter is nowhere to be seen. Sethi straddles Agee and Eggers. He avoids any overt bonding with his subjects but not because he doesn’t try. He comes near to ingratiating himself. The one thing he doesn’t do (I don’t recall Agee picking cotton, either) is mazdoor work. Instead, Sethi hangs out, an equal nonchalant with money, drink, and weed.

Still, what is the nonfictionist’s “debt” to those he portrays — beyond rendering them fairly? It seems to me that when your subjects play you, the author, as much as the mazdoors do Sethi, you need to be conscious that you’re being played, that their revelation is largely because you’re there. I missed this consciousness in Sethi’s narrative. In fact, the book has little Agee-like self-regard or insight into his own motives. Sethi is unaware that his freedom and privilege is not theirs. He’s a smart and wily reporter, a dogged listener, a digger. He may portray Ashraf’s duplicitous nature beautifully. But he doesn’t expose the same in himself.   

In the final pages, Ashraf, now past 40, is in a TB hospital, stricken but recovering. One night, he sneaks out to visit a prostitute he has seen several times before but this time doesn’t tell her he has tuberculosis. It’s a shocking confession, and Sethi lets it go, lets Ashraf and his wife-trolling plans — “once my vegetable business takes off, the offers [of marriage] will come pouring in” — stand: boys will be boys.

It’s almost as though Ashraf knows Sethi won’t judge, so he speaks freely. That’s good for the relationship in life. But it begs the question in the writing because, in the end, Ashraf is not that forthcoming. Sethi, in fact, reaches a wall. And it’s much too late for Ashraf to confront his inhumanity. But it’s not too late for Sethi. What’s missing is the writer stepping up, changing the frame. I don’t want a moral. I want some outrage. I want some insight. Most of all, I want the story, the portrait, to have an effect on the storyteller, the portrayer.

After all, taking a page from Agee, isn’t that why the reporter chooses to participate with the people he covers? What the best immersion authors deliver is an understanding of how the people being observed have changed the observer  — whether or not the enigma of the subject is solved. How much of Ashraf’s mystery Sethi captures in this mostly stellar book is fascinating to behold — the effect that capture has on Sethi is not.