As free as free can be

A Free Man
Aman Sethi
Random House
2011, pp 226
Rs 399

The warm reception Aman Sethi’s book has won is merited. However, its very warmth calls into question our journalistic practices. Are we performing to potential, when a perfectly ordinary piece of reporting — however good — is so lauded?

I have been a reporter in Delhi myself, in a day when there were dhabas at the corner of every block, and the pavements had some life to them. (Sethi was two years old then, but that’s not his fault.) Today, in south Delhi, there are no poor people visible, and hardly any pavements.

The demolitions — “todh-phodh”, as Sethi reports — of the last decade, leading up to the Commonwealth Games, have made the city immeasurably poorer by robbing it of its poor. Sethi writes of the lives of one section of the underclass, Delhi’s construction workers, and of one man in particular, Mohammed Ashraf.

He writes with skill, with irony, without stated pain. Always, he writes with empathy, and not from above, if he can manage it. I know something about the lives of construction workers in Lonavla. The difference is that here the migrants arrive in families. Even a daily-wage mazdoor is often stable if his family is with him.

Sethi’s friends in Sadar Bazaar are loners, “lafunters”, often drifters, some of whom wear their loneliness like a badge: “Today I can be in Delhi,” says Ashraf. “Tomorrow I could well be in a train halfway across the country; the day after, I can return. This is a freedom that comes only from solitude.”

This is specious; it is not a freedom they have the leisure and security to enjoy, and it sometimes drives them mad — as with Lalloo, last seen naked, chasing rickshaws on the main road. Why do they choose it, even skilled workers like Ashraf — working a few days, drinking it away, changing cities because of a chance word or a blow?

The answer seems to be, because they are loners, who do not like society and its ways, protected by the blatantly unjust hand of the law. The dacoits of Chambal might say the same thing.

“If I thought like you presswallahs think,” says Ashraf, “I would probably say Taneja (the gangster who murdered his patron in Patna) was the reason I ended up here.” It’s important for Sethi not to think as a presswallah, to take the ebbs and flows as they come daily, to understand Ashraf. This book is the labour of some years, and for years he strove in vain to get a “timeline” of Ashraf’s life. Ashraf didn’t help him, because it was unimportant to him. He exists in the here and now, and that is how Sethi has eventually to write of him.

I had to read the book twice: first searching for a narrative, then to discard the narrative. Most people’s lives are not structured to an end, and most reporting that tells a story is untrue to its subject.

A murder case does not end with a court judgement. Journalism can rarely follow beyond, and in this day of sound bites and 30-second news, it’s not meant to. Ashraf says, “This is a brutal city, Aman bhai. This is a city that eats you raw. For you, all this is research: a boy tries to sell his kidney, you write it down in your notebook. A man goes crazy somewhere between Delhi and Bombay, you store it in your recorder. But for other people, this is life.”

This is journalism as it can no longer live in the journals. Sethi is perhaps influenced by Naipaul, in form, if not in style, for his ‘literary’ passages are the least successful. At least Sethi has no moral to hang his full stops on. Perhaps his Ashraf is more like Solzhenitsyn’s Ivan Denisovich: the hard life, the brutal insights, the lies and half-lies and rare moments of clarity (usually, alas, revealed by ganja or desi liquor).

It’s worth it for the vignettes: Kalyani, who runs an illegal bar in Sadar Bazaar; Sharmaji, who rounds up the city’s beggars; the largest TB centre in Asia. All good journalism — which is better than brilliant journalism — and which adds up to the days of a free man, in a free state, free to work or starve as he chooses. And if the real photograph is the unedited negative, as Cartier-Bresson said, all printed reports are always only reports — they are not the truth.

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