[This review was first published in Cafe Dissensus Everyday.]
For long the disciplines of sociology and anthropology have focused on producing knowledge of one’s own culture or others’ culture as a totality. Although since the 1970s, there have been a more critical and self-reflexive turn in these disciplines, the notion of broad structures of culture still undergirds their work. However, these disciplines have started exploring a particular culture and society from the viewpoint of an individual or a group of individuals. These ethnographic narratives have come to be known as ‘sociological biographies.’
Aman Sethi’s A Free Man:A True Story of Life and Death in Delhi, focused on the life of Mohammed Ashraf, is by no means a sociological work. It is a journalistic work that explores the life of one of those thousands of nameless workers who, while contributing significantly to India’s growth story, are often rendered faceless and seen as having no individual subjectivity. In this ‘sociological biography,’ if we can borrow the term from the discipline of sociology, Sethi sets out the challenging task of adding depth to the spectral contour of an insignificant worker, who migrates from his village in Bihar to Delhi and, finally, lands in Calcutta.
Sethi’s work is not without antecedents. In recent years, there has been a spate of works that have explored similar stories from the most vulnerable segments of Indian society, which is often fashionably addressed as ‘the underdogs.’ In the realm of fiction, Arvind Adiga’s The White Tiger, Meher Pestonji’s Sadak Chhaap; in filmic representation, Split Wide Open and Slumdog Millionaire; and Katherine Boo’s journalistic account, Behind the Beautiful Forevers are only a few in this burgeoning area of work. While Slumdog Millionaire and The White Tiger have attained cult status because of their rags-to-riches narrative, Sethi’s book is far from a celebratory account of the underdog life.
In A Free Man, Sethi traces Mohammed Ashraf’s insignificant life in Delhi as a laborer and his journey to Calcutta, where he goes missing after a bout of tuberculosis. The book is divided into four parts, each of these dealing with one particular theme in the life of its protagonist. The first part, ‘Azadi’ or freedom, explores the term ‘azadi’ in two senses: Mohammed Ashraf’s escape from his village in Bihar to ‘a sense of azadi’ at Bara Tooti Chowk, Sadar Bazaar, Delhi, and his freedom in choosing to work on his own terms. ‘Akelapan’ or solitude, the second part, deals with the worker’s solitude that allows him the freedom of movement but, also, depicts ‘the loneliness of a being a stranger in every city.’ The third part, ‘Lawaris,’ or without kin, narrates Ashraf’s decision to leave Delhi for Calcutta, once his accomplice, Satish, dies of tuberculosis. And the last part, ‘Ajnabi,’ or stranger, deals with Ashraf’s journey to Kolkata in search of a new life.
While this neat structure lends the book an episodic feel, it also slots the narrative into the familiar structure of bourgeois affects, as each part also works on a particular emotion. Since Ashraf is a ‘pada-likha’ aadmi or a man of learning, who had attended college before dropping out, the sections based on bourgeois affect seem to work. The author posits Ashraf as a thinking mazdoor or laborer and this lends his character an interiority that we don’t normally associate with the laboring class.
While narrativizing the social biography of his respondent, Sethi does not subscribe to the standard triumph-of-the-underdog narrative. Rather, Sethi’s realist depiction is suffused with pessimism, resulting from an understanding that Ashraf’s waywardness will never allow him to live a life of bourgeois respectability. On hearing the news of Lalloo’s death, Ashraf’s words highlight his stoicism that resists a triumphal narrative arc:
And so I tell him. He takes the news quietly, discreetly wiping away tears from the corner of his eye. ‘Lalloo should have come to Calcutta with me. We could have taken care of each other. Chalo, everyone has to go when their time comes. Today it is Lalloo, tomorrow it could be me – who knows? I’m the last one left, Aman bhai. Eeveryone else is gone: Satish, Lalloo, Rehaan. But I’m still here, in a TB hospital. Dreaming of marriage; and I’m not even all that old.’
That Sethi stuck out with a pessimistic narrative is commendable when one reads how such narratives are excised in other books of similar nature. For example, in a recent interview, Katherine Boo, the author of Behind the Beautiful Forevers, reasons why she avoided documenting such stories in her book on the Annawadi slum in Mumbai, ‘…there were a lot of things that happened, tragedies that happened while I was there. One woman died excruciatingly of TB. I didn’t write about all of them. I didn’t want the story to be only the bad things that happen to people, the public-health catastrophe.’
Not only does Sethi’s book differ from other triumphalist narratives about India’s underdogs, his narrative appears more poignant because of the acute self-reflexivity of the author, who is brutally honest about the fact that he is one more journalist in search of a good story. Yet, he can’t emotionally disentangle himself from his subject, whom he accompanies to Calcutta and spends his own money to buy him tools, and visits him again after a few years. Sethi knows the improbability of authorial engagement with his/her subject beyond a point as by the end of the book, he is headed to New York City to study journalism at Columbia University, while Ashraf looks to start his trade anew in Calcutta.
Despite a strong identification with his subject, Sethi knows he is there to write a book. Right at the beginning, on his sharing the joint with Ashraf, Lalloo, and Rehaan, Sethi writes: ‘This joint, like everything else that follows, shall be for research purposes only.’ Further, he confesses the impossibility of ever identifying with one’s subjects: ‘…after a year in Bara Tooti, I realized being one of the boys is an experiment fraught with peril…’ Also, Sethi is honest about the gap between a writer’s narrative and the actual life lived in Bara Tooti as Ashraf tells him: ‘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.’
Dramatizing the life of an ordinary subject like Mohammed Ashraf is never an easy task. The picaresque narratives – a good example is Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders – are often interesting because these narratives are woven around incidents and events. There are no extraordinary events in Ashraf’s monotonous routine of work, drink, and sleep on the pavement. This forces Sethi to digress and weave his narrative around the life of other characters. For example, the third part, ‘Lawaris’, has hardly anything to do with Ashraf’s life directly. It narrates Satish’s death from tuberculosis which prompts Ashraf to leave Delhi for good. While such detours indirectly propel the narrative, it also leaves the reader wondering if an entire part should have been devoted to a character who plays no part in the other three parts of the book. Likewise there are those fleeting stories of J.P. Singh Pagal, who once worked in the Bombay film industry; the Kulfi man from Goa; Guddu, who wanted to sell his Kidney; Sharmaji who is a senior officer at the Beggars Court etc.
Yet, Sethi’s book is a stupendous achievement in narrative journalism because it showcases the tales of India’s underdogs without falling into the trap of either glorifying their achievements or sentimentalizing their tragedy. His narrative explores the hopelessness of those who function as the motor of India’s economic boom. But this hopelessness doesn’t wallow in despair. Each of the characters in the narrative sustains hopes of making it one day. That Sethi’s narrative does not leave the reader on a despondent note is largely because of his cheeky humor that seeps through his entire work. Here is an example: ‘After enough Everyday, Tilak Bridge looks like Howrah Bridge, Sadar Bazaar looks like Bara Bazaar, India Gate looks like the Gateway of India. After enough Everyday, Lallo looks like Kaka, Rehaan looks like Munna, house painters look like lost artists, carpenters seem as somber as Supreme Court judges.’ Or take for example, his description of the Beggar Information System or BIS 2.1, where biometric information about the beggars is stored.
A Free Man is a rich narrative that is bound to make the readers approach the everyday struggles of India’s laboring class with empathy and humaneness.
[A slightly truncated version of the review was originally published in Hyphen Magazine. Read here.]