Sudarshan Varadhan, student of Asian College of Journalism
“Learn to drive. Get a job. Go to work. Get a girlfriend. Have children.
Follow fashion. Act normal. Walk on the pavement. Watch TV.
Obey the law. Save for your old age.
Now report after me: I am a free man” —– Anonymous
I have always had a problem with reading accounts documenting labour issues. Most articles or books I have read till now have the author’s value systems embedded in the descriptive analysis. Very rarely do you find an account wherein the author tries to genuinely engage himself with his subjects on an emotional plane, transcending the materialistic dynamics of a relationship between a hack trying to eke a story out of his/her subject. Aman Sethi’s “A free man” is one such book.
Aman bhai, as he is referred to by Ashraf the protagonist, couldn’t have come up with a more apposite title for the book as the character breaks free of all the stereotypical barriers that find a mention in the quote used as a prelude to this text. Aman, like his protagonist, breaks free of labels. While it is obvious that this is probably a case of a middle class journalist documenting the life of a person churning out a livelihood by selling his labour in the market, the book cannot be classified as a series of essays, a piece of fiction or non-fiction. Aman has the style of a fiction writer, which he uses to describe a series of real life incidents.
Aman also strays off what Swami Vivekananda refers to as the propensity of the Indian elite to have elaborate discussions on the act of lifting a glass of water with the left or the right hand; simply put, he keeps labels, philosophical or ideological, at a safe distance.Aman’s style of writing almost streamlines a series of random, non-sensational events into a plot. However, Aman doesn’t get carried away too much by the fiction aspect and the fact that he bears the responsibility of narrating a sensitive story is evident. It is an elegant deviation from typical journalistic reportage.
The literary style chosen by Aman has given him the liberty to cut away to some light-hearted incidents (like songs in movies) and rightly so. He stays away from the dangerous stereotype of projecting the everyday life of a labourer as one of relentless pain, the stereotype that emerges when one sympathizes with a subject belonging to a different stratum of the society. The best part about this book is that it looks at the world through the eyes of the subject’s best(!) friend: a friend who understands what happiness and sadness mean to the subject as against the view of a third person, who is likely to superimpose his ideas of glee and sorrow on the subject.
Mohammed Ashraf, the Free Man, is a 40 year old house painter living on the streets of Bara Tooti Chowk, one of Delhi’s oldest and largest labor markets. He has been a butcher, has sold lemons and has also been a tailor in the past. To put it simply, Ashraf’s story could be that of any person who makes up 93% of the Indian population: the unorganized sector. Ashraf is constantly battling between the necessity to earn and stay free of coercion of any sort at the same time. “The maalik owns our work, he does not own us.” he says, in defense of his stance.
Any attempt to summarize the plot of “The free man” would only prove futile. Though the book primarily narrows its focus down to Ashraf, his friends and Aman himself, there is no plot as such. The book is basically about life in real time though one doesn’t really realize it. As a result of the intent to document life in real time, there is nothing dramatic about the proceedings. However, it turns out to be an assimilation of issues that are intertwined in a complicated network. Ashraf’s pursuit of liberty and the pitfalls therein, viz-a-viz loneliness and prolonged yearning to belong to established institutions like family. There is also a longing for friendship juxtaposed by a lack of pragmatism evident in his approach to life. One gets the feeling that Ashraf is oblivious to such harsh realities and yet doesn’t want to change a few things about his life, though it must be said that most things he wishes to change are beyond his control. He loves his early morning Chaai, beedi, alcohol and chicken as much as his dreams.
Like Ashraf, Aman prefers not to delve into solution. But unlike Ashraf’s case, Aman is right in doing so. He narrates the situation with lucidity and stays away from playing a prophet delving into the roots of the issue. The author casually mentions a lot of serious issues in a dispassionate, inclusive tone which ironically kindles more interest compared to exclusive news reports about the same: the Bombay prevention of begging act, mass eviction of three lakh homes in Delhi, beautification and development leading to elimination of livelihoods, kidney snatchers and organ markets to name a few. I found them very interesting and went on to investigate. It is possibly because Aman’s lines are aural and he uses the tone of your friend whose eyes light up on finding neighborhood gossip and not the inverted pyramid monotone of a newspaper reporter.
Aman’s modest style of narration steers clears of elitist arrogance and unnecessary grandiloquence. Objectivity remains paramount and refusal to opinionate makes this a wonderful read.