When Indian journalist Aman Sethi set out to undertake a study of New Delhi's working poor, he could hardly have dreamed up a better case study than Mohammed Ashraf—a day laborer by profession, but a philosopher and raconteur at heart. For six years, Ashraf allowed Sethi to play Boswell to his Johnson, giving him access to all aspects of his life. The result, A Free Man: A True Story of Life and Death in Delhi, explores the ups and downs that Ashraf and his friends experience as members of the Indian working class, and gives voice to the concerns of those living in poverty worldwide.
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In a starred review, Kirkus noted, "Sethi excels at emphatically depicting what could come across as a miserable existence: he allows Ashraf and the other mazdoors (laborers) to share their stories without either judging them or pretending to be one of them." By allowing the voices of the characters themselves to dictate the narrative, Sethi's debut is a profound and stirring account that will resonate with readers long after they reach its conclusion.
How did this project come about?
In 2005, I started working for a fortnightly magazine. At the time, New Delhi was gearing up for the Commonwealth Games in 2010, [which would become] a massive urban infrastructure project. This included a lot of land with unauthorized settlements, similar to shantytowns. The government started to clear these areas as part of an aggressive gentrification drive, and settlements that had been around for 50 years were being torn down. My editor at the time thought we should do something on the working class in Delhi, as the city started changing in preparation for the games. I ended up writing a three-part series on day laborers, for which I first met and interviewed Mohammed Ashraf.
After, I was talking with friends, and started looking at labor narratives in India. They generally fall into two categories, either stories of heroism, happy and triumphant, or stories of devastating defeat. But people live their lives in the area in between. At the time, I'd been reading a lot of new journalism, the works of Truman Capote and Tom Wolfe. I thought this should be the way of covering these sort of narratives. I got a bit of money to do this, and put together a book proposal.
You're able to communicate many things about contemporary Indian culture through one man, day laborer Mohammed Ashraf. What do you think makes him such an effective, memorable character?
Several things. He's extremely engaging, hypnotically interesting, and has lived an extremely interesting life. He's articulate and eloquent, and very talkative. The thinking at the time was 'the poor are stupid, but if they're educated they'll be okay.' But Ashraf almost went to college. Clearly, there are more structural problems with the Indian apparatus of opportunity. Because here was this interesting man who had dropped out of college, yet for several years now had no place to sleep. How had he traveled such a far distance?
Let's talk about the research process. How did you go about it? Did you encounter any particular difficulties?
I started visiting in 2005. Sadar Bazaar was close to my office at the time, 10-15 minutes by motorcycle. In the beginning, I'd go early in the morning before work and spend time with Ashraf and his friends. Later, if I had nothing to do, I'd pop over and spend an hour, hour and a half, during the day. I made sure to spend time there during the morning, afternoon, evening and night, because the place changes every few hours. At some point, it became a normalized part of my routine. I was 23-years-old at the time, kind of messing about. Fortunately, I was messing about with a recorder. As people started to trust me, they asked me into their lives. It was a way of getting to know a different part of the city for me, as well.
Being a reporter, you are in some ways trained to be unmoved in the face of horror. But when you're writing a book, you're not just reporting what happened, you're trying to understand it. The challenge is to make yourself subjective. In journalism, you walk into a place and you are not a participant. But when you're writing a book, dealing with befriending people, you need to make yourself vulnerable and be okay with it.
You often bemoan the fact that you were unable to get a solid timeline of the events of Ashraf's life, not to mention the credibility of the information he did share. How do you deal with this?
Early on, I realized that whenever you approach a source, the source is always going to give you a story which in some ways is what the source wants you to hear. At no point is a source required to tell you the truth; we're not judges or prosecutors. As a journalist, you get counter-factual narratives to give you an approximation of what actually happened. With A Free Man, I realized that if we just let someone speak for themselves, it is a narrative. You've got to respect that; whether it is truthful or not, it allows someone to get through the day.
But as a journalist, I can't just swallow all of that. I wrote myself into the book as well so I could voice my unease with [the credibility of] this narrative. In that way, I was able to write about someone who does not want to be written about, someone who is participating in the process but is pushing back.So how much of this is true? Everything I have reported is as it was told to me.