Thursday, February 28, 2013

Book Review: A Free Man by Aman Sethi

On the jacket:

In this landmark work of reportage, Aman Sethi sets out to understand the life of Mohammad Ashraf, a daily-wage worker in Delhi’s Bara Tooti Chowk. Spending the greater part of five years in ‘the largely empty space between the backpacker haven of Paharganj and picturesque Chandni Chowk’, where daily-wage transactions take place, he learns, over alcohol, tea and ganja, the story of Ashraf’s life. 

Bringing labour into the narrative of the city, Sethi chronicles the minutiae that make up the lives of the labourers who are building Delhi: from the boiled eggs, sweet tea, varieties of raw alcohol that can quickly nullify a day’s earnings, secret pockets stitched into clothes, and unconventional banking arrangements to the vulnerability of the labourers to the kidney mafia and their survival in a network of systems that should serve but mostly alienates. The vignettes come in asides to the running conversations with Ashraf, throwing light on the lives of countless invisible men. 

A Free Man gives us the lens to view a contemporary transformation. Deeply insightful and compulsively readable, it is a humane, intimate and compelling account of an individual and a group of people who are most often explained away in a statistic.


I am amazed at how many good Indian authors I have been able to read of late. More amazed because they are not that heard of in the circuits. Unfair, both for the authors and the readers! Aman Sethi is one such authors. Looking at the rave reviews at the back jacket of the book, I was a bit sceptical. Because, experience says, the crowd at times loves the mediocre. But I was proved wrong.

A Free Man is an experience, not just a read. The writing gives the feeling of reading a journal, and that adds to the experience. Very realistic, the characters are rustic and while reading the book, you will actually visualise them and make out the whys and hows of their characters. You will be left wondering what if. What if you were Ashraf, a nobody, with no where to go, scheming through each day so that the next day can be lived through? Poverty is described but there was no deliberate attempt to use it as the selling point of the book. In short, a good read.

Rating: ****/5

[This review is for Random House India. The opinions are strictly my own and not been written under any obligation.]

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