Mazdoori and Azadi: A Portrait of Invisible Men in an Invisible City

The day-time bus ride from Bangalore to Chennai is one of those seemingly endless journeys; I picked up the book, Free Man, which I had begun to read a few days earlier. I was on my way back from a job interview with a mainstream newspaper, where I’d applied to work as a reporter, which coincidentally is also the author, Aman Sethi’s occupation.


After the job interview, all sorts of questions kept popping into my head:  what sort of work would I be doing as a journalist? What might I want to write about? And what is the point of all of this and ‘42’ being the answer not making too much sense, this book came as a welcome inspiration. The author, who should be 28 years old now, has put in a good part of his 20’s in writing this book. That in itself is an incredible achievement, not that he spent time in places where he was seemingly an obvious outsider and tried to figure his way around, but rather that a person in his 20’s, a journalist especially, spent nearly five years doing one thing consistently. And that, if I have to think about it, is what impressed me the most about this piece of work. The author’s commitment to the text that he writes and his eagerness to bring in all the permutations and combinations and seeing where all the calculations.

A Free Man proves to be an excellent read, as mentioned in many other reviews, for elaborating on quirky facts that could prove useful for an entrepreneurial mind or at least a funny nugget of information that can be shared with friends. The writer includes many detailed transcriptions   of his conversations with his protagonists, a few examples of this being, the conversation he carries out with Rehaan (one of the central characters in the Free Man) about the relationship between the arithmetic progression in a daughter’s life cycle as it corresponds to the geometric increase in the goats/ pigs bought during that period and how this can be made a highly profitable venture, with pigs allegedly being the more profitable of the two. Or the introduction of truly Indian alcohol brands such as Mafia and Everyday, which might have otherwise remained unknown to most people who read a work of English non-fiction.

As the passage goes, “While the connection may not seem obvious to most, pigs and sugar cane go back a long way. Uttar Pradesh for instance, where Rehaan comes from, produces a fourth of the country’s sugar and is home to about a fifth of all its pigs.”

The text is punctuated with streams of conversation between the protagonists and the writer which function at many different levels. Some of these levels being the obvious humour in the passages, an attempt at providing a glimpse into a different reality, but most importantly, as stated earlier, a non-patronising and sincere interpretations of his conversations during his research work at areas such as Sadar Bazaar in Delhi, an expansive labour market, where the writer spent most of his time while working on the book.

One such passage follows, “but if Delhi is such a boring place, why does anyone even come here? I ask.

It’s hard to say, Aman bhai. Everyone has their own special reasons, personal reasons, family reasons, and emotional reasons. You can’t just go around asking people why they are here.

There is something Delhi can give you-a sense of azadi, freedom from your past. Everyone knows Delhi. Delhi has Qutub Minar, Red Fort, Old Fort. For every person who makes a bit of money in Delhi, an entire village arrives in search of work. So if you are leaving home, you might as well come to Delhi. Where else would a runaway run away to?

One summer afternoon, I met a painter called Idris who claimed that he came away to Delhi after he shot someone with a country-made pistol.
Did you kill him? No that was the biggest mistake. He survived and now he wants to kill me.”

There are occasions in the book where the lines between a traditional work of non-fiction and fiction are blurred. A good example of this is in the passage where he accompanies one of the other protagonists in the book, Satish, to the hospital when he falls severely ill. As the passage goes, “The old man adjusts the bandage on his head, looks about, and beams widely at all present. To his left, a middle-aged man uses a large cotton swab to staunch the blood that gushes from a large hole in his throat.....somewhere down the hall, an elderly lady suddenly keels over and goes into a faint.”

The writer’s vivid description, while initially raised questions about how his mind was taking in the whole experience of his friend Satish in crisis and the everyday life at the hospital or with composing passages for the book.  But on second thought though, it is the writer’s honesty with which he has approached the work that he has set out to do that stands out in such passages. The tension of the book comes through at this point, one has to ask, who is Sethi and what is his relationship to the people in the book? His character pops in and out of the book. He is the least consistent character. The reader learns much about the personalities and personal lives of Rehaan, Satish and Ashraf, but of Sethi we know that he is an on-looker and chronicler. As the book progresses, we get glimpses of the support role and friendship that Sethi takes on in the lives of his characters. The reader gets a sense is that he is well-off, well connected and well educated. He is able to provide support and easily traverse in the between these disparate worlds because of this fact. While it is clear that this book has been possible because of Aman Sethi's privileged, urban subjective position, it stands as a refreshing twist away from the other genres in which lives of marginalised persons and communities are often described, namely; journalistic, biographical, autobiographical, academic, activist and empathetic/sympathetic semi-fiction.

Aman Sethi’s book works at a level where, if looked closely enough, could blur the lines between the ideas of India and the India that is, or more importantly the people and places and the imaginations of these peoples and places. Where, while the book does serve to construct a certain romantic idea of workers in Delhi, it reinforces various realities in a genuine way, where the romantic notions are not constructed from an already preconceived notion but flow naturally through the writer’s text and through the conversations that he chose to document.

The Free Man has been one of the most insightful reads I have had in recent times. This is a book that is filled with little instances which can provide endless fodder to the imaginative mind and possibly has served to produce a new thematic through which other similar South Asian works of literature can emerge.

Comments It’s harder to say, Aman bhai. Everyone has their own appropriate reasons, claimed reasons, ancestors reasons, and affecting reasons. You can’t just go about allurement humans why they are here.

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