If you hover in the air around Bara Tooti Chowk, Sadar Bazar, Pahargunj, Azad Market on a Alladin Carpet, straight out of an Arabian Night spaceship and point your finger on one of the thousands, millions of Delhiite denizens, scurrying for space beneath; some pedaling on their rickshaws- transporting over-weight passengers from New Delhi railway station, ploddering, exhausting last bit of their muscle energy, at times standing tall on their rickshaw pedals, to thrust it forward with force; occasionally spitting pink gutka with equal burden on the road below.
Or you turn left and put your finger on this beedi smoking, reed thin laborer standing at a junction below Daryaganj flyover, amidst a gaggle of laborers, perhaps looking for work. Slightly drowsy, may be from last nights excessive drinking.
Or you may look far ahead below where a govt. hospital stands. Weak, dispirited patients; angry, confused, cursy' attendants, all waiting in mincing patience. A lull of gloom is suspended in the air around; some of it lingering on these faces, from a long long time.
It seems Aman Sethi was up on one of such Alladin Carpets, where he chose to pick amongst the million Delhiite, stone broke under privileged non-native dweller. In this story he has a name: Ashraf.
Aman Sethi’s, ‘A Free Man’ is a drama-less memoir written in exquisite style. Never once did I feel out of sync with the story. He held me there, with him and Ashraf. I finished the book in 2 days, in the middle of the week.
There is something Delhi can give you- a sense of azadi, freedom from past, says Ashraf in his own blasé style to Aman in one of the many interviews, that Aman conducts over a period of few years, following Ashraf, chronicling his story with method and empathy. There are two types of people here: those who pull the trigger and those who survive the shootout. In a very non-philosophical tone, Ashraf states a very basic fact of living and settling down in the city. For those who come to Delhi from neighboring UP, Bihar and Jharkhand in search of unbound wealth.
The story is written in times when Delhi was surging towards this monstrous metropolitan that it has turned into now. With growth, comes desolation. A glass ware built on the ruins of poor. With Common Wealth games scheduled in 2010, the Delhi Municipal Corporation went on a spree of demolishing unregistered settlements. The violent displacement of slum dwellers around Sanjay Amar Colony was hardly given coverage by the national press who described the process as necessary for urban renewal. The working class once more crucified at the altar of crony capitalism. How it affected an entire population is where Aman Sethi’s story comes alive.
While the basis of the story may be grim, but, Sethi doesn’t fail to see the humor that visibly exists in these dungeons.
Hope, perhaps, is what binds these countless marginalized to a city oppressive to their right to live with dignity; quite brilliantly exemplified in Rehaan’s story- one of Ashraf’s accomplice, who on one afternoon under the shade of a Gulmohar tree, while sipping chai, reveals emphatically his dream business, that could turn him wealthy overnight. The business starts with buying a goat, from where he would switch to rearing pigs and extracting sugar, from a sugarcane distillery. When everything seemed to be worked out, Rehaaan regrets that it isn’t possible because his father is a devout Muslim, and would not allow him a mere mention of pigs in his presence. The plan crashes down under its own weight. The wacky irony in the whole narration is brilliant.
Aman Sethi's debut book is not about triumph or making it big, rising through the ranks- a rags to riches story. No its not. It is just a story that he picked from many countless alleys, crossings, heaving markets, deathlike willy-nilly plastered hospitals with rickety benches and stenchy' bed sheets, where each grain of thick summer air holds death and despair in it.