Sunday, January 8, 2012
A Free Man
First few pages of ‘A Free Man’ made me think that this writer was stepping into the shoes of Sudhir Venkatesh who had brought sociological research into a gripping thriller experience by publishing a detailed account of his research on the urban drug peddling poor in the underbelly of the United States, under the title, ‘Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets’. Soon I realized that this young writer, Aman Sethi, who obviously has been influenced by the style of Sudhir Venkatesh research and its outcome, however has found out his own way to write his research trips and life in the backstreets of Old Delhi where innumerable migrants from the poverty stricken villages in the North India hoard to eke out a living.
‘A Free Man’ centres around the life of Mohammed Ashraf, a mazdoor who likes to live a free life. He has hopes and dreams to make it big in life. But his personal philosophy pertaining to life in general and freedom in particular does not help him much in turning his dreams into a reality. Hence, he remains a painter mazdoor in the Bara Tooti Chowk near Sadar Bazar in Old Delhi. One interesting thing about him is that he so free that he could jump into any train that he sees first and go to a place where the locomotive takes him and live there for years without missing his life in Delhi even for a moment.
Aman Sethi, the writer of this book, young, vibrant and equipped with a research fellowship reaches Old Delhi to study about the lives of the migrant labourers who live in pavements and streets daring the extreme climate, unhygienic conditions, effects of liquor and other intoxicants and the frequent attack of the police. Aman does not feature the life of Ashraf, Lalloo, Rehaan, Kalyaani, Satish and so on as the supreme examples of the mazdoor life in Old Delhi. Instead, he approaches them as case studies, and just like Sudhir Venkatesh got interested in the drug running life of the gangster, J.T, Aman too gets interested in the life of Ashraf and he uses it as a fulcrum to revolve the weights of the other lives.
Ashraf is a free man and he is worldly wise. His philosophy is impressive and his world view is refreshing. All these come from his education, exodus and experiences in life. He is a much travelled man. The exodus starts when he accidently challenges a land grabber. Then he moves to different cities including Calcutta, Mumbai and places in Punjab before he settles down in Delhi. Still he believes that he could hop into the first train and leave the place. But Old Delhi like a hook that pierces into the gunny bags full of rice, does not leave him alone.
Aman befriends Ashraf, whose age is not mentioned anywhere though the reader could assume that he must be somewhere around fifty, and through Ashraf life he understand the lives of others including the enterprising Kalyani who starts off her career as a gleaner of spilled away grains and later becomes one of the notorious vendors of the local liquor. Aman weaves his narrative through the lives of Rehaan who believes in the ability of his own body to do any difficult task and Satish who succumbs to the vice grip of tuberculosis.
‘A Free Man’ could be read as a fiction and once we read it as a fiction we come to know that real life is more fictional than fictions. When we read it as a real life of a few people we come to know that we live in a city about which we know very little. Night has a different complexion in any city and it has a different meaning to different people. The state reacts to those who live in streets differently and the pavement dwellers also react to the state differently. While the middleclass shrinks away from the presence of the state in the form of Police, only two sections of the people stand up to it; the affluent and the deprived. Both have their own reasons to challenge the law. A Free Man tells us how the deprived and the destitute challenge the state.
Aman’s narrative is quite gripping and the glimpses of a scenario writing is seen quite often. But this book might not make a movie that could move the box office records because the hero in this book does not win over anything or anyone. Though he does not do so, we could never see Ashraf as a loser. When he is neither a loser nor a winner, he loses his chance to be a filmic hero in the typical Indian sense. He is a loner, perhaps he is a person who has achieved the Indian wisdom, a sufi vision, as nothing stands.
The young author has a knack to touch the auditory and olfactory faculties of the reader. He narrates the sounds of night as well as the taste of the food, liquor and weed. And when you read Aman describing himself first drinking desi daru (local liquor) you feel the burning liquid sizzling your tongue then moving down through your guts like a molten iron.
This book becomes a part of the Delhi narratives with a sense of ease because it is unpretentious on the one hand and has a lot of information about the lives of the migrant mazdoors. Also it graphically narrates the kinds of labour available and the kinds of jobs done in and around Old Delhi. It peeps into the upper and under dealings of the state. Above all it deals with the dreams of people who leave their familiar zones behind and tread onto the unchartered futures, and find themselves in the pavements of big cities.
I would recommend the young readers to read this because it is written by a young author who has a lot of hopes and dreams that run parallel to the dreams and desires of Ashraf, the protagonist of the book.