A free man By Aman Sethi, Random House, Rs 399
Three mazdoors sit outside a shop in Delhi’s Sadar Bazaar, passing a joint around. A common enough sight that most passers by might not even register. Those with a finely tuned social conscience might cluck at poverty and the plight of unorganized labour. What few would do is wonder what kind of men they were, where they came from or why they were there. Few would ‘dig caves’ behind these characters. There is a peculiar alchemy of observation that turns the most everyday scenes into stories. Most novelists make stories, Aman Sethi knows how to find them. He also knows how to tell them. And suddenly real life acquires all the richness and complexity of fiction.
Mohammad Ashraf, one of the men at the shopfront, frequents the alleys of Baara Tooti in Sadar Bazaar, working when there is work available, drinking, smoking beedis and mouthing aphorisms. He has grown up in Patna and claims to have studied biology till his first year in college, when he dropped out after an altercation with a local goon. Since then, he has lived in Mumbai, Calcutta, Surat and Delhi. He knows how to cut suits; he also knows how to cut chickens weighing 1 kilogram so that they end up weighing half a kilogram more when they are sold. Having left his family and reached the streets of Old Delhi, he refuses to take up a regular job, bartering his services at construction sites for a daily wage instead. An employer may only own your work and not you, he says. Ashraf does not own a house. He is ‘a free man’.
Among the men sitting with Ashraf is Lalloo, who once owned a paratha stall but woke up after a night of heavy drinking to find himself bereft. He then started whitewashing houses for a living but people at the chowk said he had never been the same since. Then there is Rehaan, who does the heavy lifting at construction sites but dreams of his native village, and still mourns all the animals he has bred and lost. There is Kaka, who owns the tea shop favoured by the workers and acts as banker to them; there is Kalyani, who runs a makeshift bar that sells the potent Everyday liquor; there is Satish, who called home 10 years too late. In the streets of Old Delhi, Sethi meets an amorphous community, put together by chance. Lives intersect and diverge, stories begin, only to trail away into silence, fortunes are made and lost in what seems to be a random sequence of events. And this may be a function of the city where it all happens.
Delhi, with its cycle of construction, demolition and change, is echoed in the lives of its inhabitants. Each character also drags Sethi, and with him, the story, into a different site in the innards of Delhi. Apart from Kaka’s tea shop and Kalyani’s bar, he goes to the Old Delhi railway station, where massive loads are tossed from platform to locomotive within minutes; to the Beggars Court, where homeless people are herded in and often locked away; he goes into the Kasaipura, where the floors are slick with blood, and into the city’s TB hospitals, where hundreds of mouths spew out blood every day. Indeed, this random and savage city may be one of the most compelling characters in the book.
But Sethi’s book is no dirge, neither is it a generic report on poverty and squalor in the big city. Ashraf and his friends see themselves as dreamers and voyagers, they concoct fabulous schemes to get rich and at any moment, they might board a train out of the city and never come back. These men are not victims of circumstance but tragic heroes. The chapters of the book are divided according to aspects of their experience — “Azadi (freedom)”, “Akelapan (loneliness)”, “Ajnabi (strangers)”, “Lawaris (vagabond)” — all words with a ring of melancholy and high romance. But the heroic blends effortlessly with the mundane. Sethi describes his subjects with much humour and affection; life is picked out in beloved detail.
Sethi’s skill as a journalist and a storyteller lies in what he chooses to see, and in what he chooses to include in his account. He will tell you, for instance, that Ashraf, Lalloo and Rehaan “move cyclically around the lamp post” as the seasons change, lying in the shade of the northwest quadrant of the chowk in summer, shifting to the southeast quadrant during the monsoons. He will tell you that each migrant worker is a scrapbook of himself, carrying money, documents and ancient X-ray plates in secret pockets sewed into his clothes. He describes Ashraf explaining the concepts of “business-type” people, “medium-type friends” and “dehadi friendship”. And when Ashraf wakes up one morning to find all his money gone, what bothers him most is having to borrow two rupees from Kaka in order to use the public toilet. A grim story is told with a light touch and not much embellishment. Most of the time, Sethi just puts his facts forward and lets them gleam.
Months of conversation are distilled into the chapters of this book and as the subjects talk, the prose often breaks into Hindi. In many works of Indian writing in English, this becomes a slightly annoying tic. Most of the characters, one assumes, must be speaking in Hindi anyway and their conversation has been translated. Why is it that some moments must be more vernacular than others? But Sethi clearly delights in the music of certain words and phrases that his subjects use — the “mazdoors” who can’t just be described as workmen, the “maalik” who cannot be allowed to own you, the “todh-phodh” that takes over Delhi when the municipal corporation goes on its demolition drive.
By the time he describes the “chip-chip” under his own feet in Kasaipura, Sethi has developed a vocabulary that moves unselfconsciously between languages. It is, in fact, a vocabulary that many of us think in. But perhaps this presumes a certain kind of reader: Indian, urban and bilingual. This in turn invites a rather uncomfortable idea — that the book is really about this reader observing people like Ashraf as if they were novelties. That it’s about one kind of people decoding another. But it’s either that or passing by the shopfront unaware, and missing a wealth of stories.