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'What separates us from them is that we have safety nets'
Aman Sethi's first book, 'A Free Man', tracks the lives of a group of labourers who work and live at an intersection of two roads called Bara Tooti in north Delhi's Sadar Bazaar. Following their lives, Sethi takes us into the fascinating and unlikely circumstances that bring people into and out of Delhi - a world populated by characters like Sharmaji, the terrifyingly zealous rounder-up of beggars;Kalyani, the awe-inspiring proprietor of a bar run out of a tunnel;and Mohammed Ashraf, a safediwala with a business-type personality, a complex life story, dehadi philosophies and medium-type friendships. Sethi, 28, is tall and lanky, giving the impression of never quite fitting into any chair, and speaks thoughtfully but with constant self-deprecation. On a week's break in the capital from.
The book deals exclusively with the lives of these labourers. This makes it fairly unusual in the current landscape of works of non-fiction on India that focus on an easily caricatured inequality. Was it a leap of faith then to write about this world alone? The book grew very organically. I didn't go in there to write the book, I went there to do six months of research for the Sarai fellowship (a programme of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi). The idea behind the fellowship was "Seeking New Forms of Representing Labour" or something very academic and wonkish like that. The idea was to try and use new journalism techniques to write about the working class. Sarai was a very interesting place at the time, there were lots of people doing interesting stuff, there was this culture of generosity. Friends of mine then suggested I write it as a book.
It wasn't really a temptation to write about the rest of Delhi, because that world itself existed without interactions with Delhi's rich... A large part of North Delhi is just not engaged with a large part of south Delhi. And south Delhi is just a very boring part of the city beyond a point!
The idea behind the writing was to not oppress the subjects through the writing. And to talk about a different way of life, a different mode of life, with aspirations that are in a sense unintelligible to a different sphere of people...The idea was that I'm not here to judge, I'm not here to suggest alternate ways of life but to just try and record as much as I can. And if at some point as you get involved in the space, you stop being solely a recording machine and slowly you work your way in and end up becoming a participant which is something that you can't do in journalism but a book offers you that kind of space.
Throughout the book, you doggedly chase your lead character, Ashraf, for a neat timeline of his life, and he is constantly trying to wriggle out of that question. It seems like it's not just your journalistic need to get your story down, but also your world and notions of time that collide very hard with his.
It keeps coming back to the way I live my life and the way Ashraf lives his life. Two different ways of living a day, an hour, a minute. There was this sense that all this stuff couldn't have happened, could it? And if it did, then were you 13 when this happened or 17, because the way we've been trained to think, it makes a lot of difference.
And in some ways it's a pretty violent act;'I'm going to nail you down to your story;you'll have one chance to give me your story and then don't bloody change it. Which is a lot of what you find yourself doing as a reporter. For Ashraf, there was a lot of stuff that he didn't want to talk about. At some point it just becomes a metaphor for just trying to understand another person.
People who aim to write in a manner sympathetic to the poor often struggle with how to present the poor. Your characters are very rich, there's friendship and philosophy, but there are also drinking binges and being broke and neglected families. Did you ever feel the need to sanitise things, to make your characters appear holier?
I had a series of conversations when I started this story .... I met someone called Jeebesh Bagchi at Sarai and he'd been working with labour for a long time, and I showed him what I was writing then, and asked him what do you think and he looked at it and said that the problem with it is that all journalistic writing seems to take policy as the axis around which the story spins. There's always policy as the goalpost and you fit people in around these policies and he asked me if there was a way to write where the logical conclusion at the end of the story is not policy. Is there a way to write that does not induce the policy impulse? That triggered a lot of thinking and that followed in the writing. After a while you learn to just sit and listen and record and over a period of time look at the character that emerges. And I don't know if I've been able to do justice to this in my writing but I think with Ashraf, a pretty lovable man emerges. He has these demons that he's fighting and one has to confront those demons head on.
But you do get deeply involved with your characters;you take one to a TB hospital, you try to help another financially, there are late-night drunken phone calls. This involvement comes off very naturally in the book. Was it as organic as that?
Well when I'm reporting, I always feel that my internal conflict may be interesting to me - though often it isn't even to me - but may not be something that the reader really cares about. So it was a conscious decision. The first few drafts of the book didn't have me in it, which meant that it read in this extremely strange way. There were just this series of random movements of people. It was unprintable (laughs). So then I sort of moved myself in.
A lot of writing tends to be about the narrator's personal journey. The world is just like a set-piece for the narrator's journey through it. I didn't want to do that. The fellowship had given me some money. That money of course I spent the minute I got it on buying a laptop. But I figured, cosmically and karmically, that I had been given some money to do some work and given that my research involved taking my bike from Defence Colony to Sadar Bazar, the money should be spent on the project. It wasn't really that much money and it was a little late in the day to wonder, "Should I get involved?"
Fairly devastating stuff happens to pretty much all your characters. Lives in India, and Delhi in particular, have reached such a ghettoized point, that classes rarely talk to each other. Do you think it might come as a revelation to your readers that it isn't just the odd construction worker who has a hard luck story, but that this is the state of insecurity that an entire class is living in?
I think a large number of lives are led without constantly foregrounding inequality. I think it's great if the book did that but I didn't write it as a pedagogic experience on the realities of class. I just hope it complicates the debate because I think the problem with a lot of the writing on "the poor" is that it basically lays the ground for elite intervention. If the book makes people less interventionist and more thoughtful, then it has served some purpose but not "its" purpose, because it has no purpose.
Speaking of interventions, it's not just people in government or NGOs who have schemes to pull people out of poverty, all your characters too seem to have a pet scheme that they're sure would change their lives, like Rehaan and his pyramid pig scheme. You too seem to buy into this as the book goes on, that one push could change things.
We all buy into this. We all live our lives as jugadus who are hoping for things to happen.... But the thing that separates us from them is that we have safety nets.
Like the phone call home you're able to make in the book when your pocket gets picked.
Right, we can go, "Mamma, mera wallet ghum gaya hai. " They can't do that. The stakes here are always about survival - food tonight or not. They're always so high. One way of looking at it is that these are people who don't have a care in the world. The other way of looking at it is that these are people for whom it's maximum stakes, all in, every night.
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