For long the disciplines of sociology and
anthropology have focused studying culture through an all-encompassing, broad lens.
Since the 1970s, there has been a more critical and self-reflective turn in
these disciplines. These disciplines have started exploring a particular
culture and society from the viewpoint of an individual or a group of
individuals, through ethnographic
narratives known as “sociological biographies.”
Aman Sethi’s non-fiction book, A Free Man: A True Story of Life and Death
in Delhi, focuses on the life of Mohammed Ashraf. 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 identity. In this “sociological biography,”
Sethi sets out the challenging task of adding depth to the contour of an
insignificant worker, who migrates from his village 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 called “the underdog." 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.
Photo by Ishan Tankha
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 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. And the last part, “Ajnabi,” or
stranger, deals with Ashraf’s journey to Kolkata in search of a new life.
While creating a
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.
That Sethi stuck out with a pessimistic
narrative is commendable. 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-awareness 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.
However, Sethi well-understands the limits of
authorial engagement with his/her subject. He confesses the impossibility of
ever identifying with one’s writing 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 reporting 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.’” True to Ashraf’s observation,
by the end of the book, Sethi is headed to New York City to study journalism at
Columbia University, while Ashraf looks to start his trade anew in Calcutta.
Dramatizing the life of an ordinary subject
like Mohammed Ashraf is never an easy task. 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 Ashraf’s friend’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.
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. 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.
Khan is a doctoral candidate in the Department of English, New York University.
He researches in the area of Muslim everyday life in the Indian