I was a bit hesitant when I picked up A Free Man, Aman Sethi’s astonishing debut novel of extraordinary narrative reportage. Having started on, and subsequently given up, Sonia Faleiro’s ‘Beautiful Thing’ I was apprehensive if this would turn out to be not another drab and predictable reportage of the disadvantaged class. The blurb endorsement soothed my nerves however. From Katherine Boo (whose ‘Behind the Beautiful Forever’ was an eye-opener) to Siddhartha Mukherjee, (Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Emperor of All Maladies) the endorsements screamed for my attention and I succumbed. Suffice it to say that my trust in these authors is intact and so is my respect (and accompanying anger if you have read Bolano) with Aman Sethi. Five years spent understanding ‘mazdoor ki zindagi’ brings out a work that is brutally honest and engaging. Mohammed Ashraf and his ordeals through some of the most difficult times in Indian history and through some of the most complex times in his personal history makes for a nuanced read. A trait that I found missing in Faleiro’s work.
The most intriguing aspect of the novel is the seemingly formless way in which it is written. In that way, it feels more of an investigative journalist’s blog account, updated everyday, with an uncanny knack of soaking in the weirdest, the funniest and the wackiest of language, of pitches and of enunciations. I would not go so far as to say that the author has identified the pulse of the modern India but it would be equally justified to acclaim this young writer’s no-nonsense approach towards understanding his subject. He offers no judgement (thankfully) and accepts nothing from his reportage. As we progress into the story, Ashraf the subject becomes Ashraf the narrator and subsequently Ashraf the hero and eventually Ashraf the friend. As Esther Duflo aptly says in the cover- “What starts as classic ethnography becomes a gripping story, and ends as a homage to a lost friend.”
Get this clear, understanding the life of someone living through the worst of times is wrought with dangers of oversimplification or of exaggeration—both equally convenient to slip up to. Sethi brings out the stories in a simple yet non-linear and non-chronological fashion that is sympathetic and descriptive. One does get a hang of the conditions that lead to the mass exodus of peasants from the nooks and crannies of rural India. One does realize the futility of chasing ‘azadi’ while navigating ‘akelapan’ as these folks run their lives like an 800 pound gorilla. Their Dionysian propensity to live life to the fullest (the end being the same unmarked ‘lavaris’ dead body)and their Apollonian responsibility (their folks back home, whose contact details they constantly kept safely tucked away in the ‘chor’ pockets) makes for a tussle that every one of us can identify with, irrespective of the class and with or without the sustenance cushion.
I started out to briefly note a book that is an interesting read and an easy read at the same time. It journeys through Patna, Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata to paint a picture of a common life across the geographical locations. Delhi, symbolizing ‘azadi’ was better than an institutionalized but ‘bandha’ existence in Patna or elsewhere. They left their family and their life behind to pursue independence in the capital city, only to find themselves counting days to their grave and alone.