Aman Sethi's book, A Free Man, breaks much ground with its keenly observed portrait of a mazdoor (labourer), Mohammed Ahraf, who does among things, the job of a safediwalla (whitewasher).
For someone who takes Delhi for granted, having been educated here, what comes across sharply in this book is the sense that the city can be an aspiration in itself. One of the core arguments for multiculturalism in the big international cities relates to the merits of familiarity. They say that contact and familiarity with other cultures/classes/people is desirable as one is not fascinated to the point of fetishizing the other. However, in Delhi we suffer from another kind of problem. The familiarity breeds numbness, and the vastness of difference in social and economic access of other classes is so normalised that it fails to be confronted or thought of in any serious, human way. Thus, when someone builds a bridge across these divides, the act itself becomes a pivot, and a centralisation point for other kinds of battles and conversations regarding the same. If it is done well, like in a Free Man, it can snowball into larger debates with more tangible effects.
The book has been well received and reviewed by national newspapers and praised for the topicality of the content, the chosen form and the writing. However, Palash Krishna Mehrotra mistakenly reviewed the book as a novel for the Hindustan Times. Mr. Mehrotra goes on to embarrass himself by criticising this book claiming that “it could have been a book of interviews or reportage and been all the more powerful for it. Instead, the novel is about a journalist interviewing poor workmen so that he can write a book about poor workmen.” The review makes for very bizarre reading and is ridiculous in every sense, as it clear from the book cover itself that it is a non fiction account of a journalists’ time spent with a poor workman to understand him. This is a massive oversight of the reviewer and the newspaper in general, and is rather mortifying for them, but more importantly insulting to the writer. Continuing to criticise this so called novel, Mr. Mehrotra quotes Elizabeth Hardwick who says “”a novel becomes a fairy tale so that it will not be thought to be a sociological study…”, an idea that seems to run “like a low fever among the student body”. In Aman Sethi’s first novel A Free Man, the low fever becomes a delirium.”’ The book IS a sociological study!
“In several passages, the narrator seems to be distancing himself from his working class hero, taking pains to reassure his middle class reader that he is an honest guy with good habits, not one of “them”.” On the contrary, the author has clearly spent a lot of time with Ashraf and his friends and gone to great lengths to immerse him in their work and life. Also, he was doing this while he held a full time job which I think represents a clear inclination and stamp of interest. Further, the question of honesty doesn’t arise. Never does an instance reveal that Kaka or Ashraf or any of other mazdoors are crooks, or try and cut corners, or are dishonest simply because they’re working class. The author makes no claims to honesty himself. He does comment on the hardness of beedis and country liquor, but that is understandable because it would be for anyone who isn’t used to it on a regular basis, even Ashraf. This is not a question of ‘good habits’ either as the author smokes his cigarettes throughout the narrative.
“For Sethi belongs to the school of writing which believes that the modern novel is less about ‘mere’ storytelling, and more about correcting injustice in society. The novelist might be a storyteller, but he is also an NGO activist.” Apart from ‘modern novel’ jarringly leaping out of this sentence, the author stresses again and again that he is a journalist and a researcher, and I find it impossible to believe that Mr. Mehrotra even read this book, if he could miss so fundamental a point. The author makes no claims about exposing let alone correcting injustice. He is merely understanding and documenting the life of a mazdoor. He speaks not of their rights or their wages, or organising them into a union. Instead, he tries to establish ‘a timeline’ of the mazdoors life, and the reasons why this is so challenging, reveals much about the actual timeline itself. It becomes clear that Ashraf is man with very little, with no sense of job security or family love or a comfortable future. What little he has, he keeps losing again and again. The tone of the book used to construct this, is all important. It is the particular combination of the authors’ journalistic and anthropological skills that make this book so riveting. It is observed keenly, and with compassion but that does not overrun the narrative. It stays dry and wry and at no point is it a bleeding heart tale, yet, at no point is it a feel good story account. It is immensely, unquestionably personal, as the whole point was to understand the personal life of a mazdoor. As is apparent, that has its own value in the world.
I heard Aman speak at the LitforLife conference organised by The Hindu last week, where he was in conversation with Rana Dasgupta and Indrajit Hazra. The topic of conversation for the panel was ‘Realities : Fictional or Otherwise’. While introducing Hazra (who is Books Editor at the Hindustan Times, and someone I am a big fan of) he said, you’re a novelist and a fiction writer but you also write for the Hindustan Times, which sometimes publishes nonfiction, how do you manage this balance? This impromptu introduction got a big laugh out of the audience and Hazra too. I would be mortified if I was either Palash Krishna Mehrotra, or any of his editors who approved his piece. I hope the newspaper prints an apology or at the very least retracts that review.