My review-essay on Aman Sethi's A Free Man in the context of other recent literary nonfiction about India appears in the Fall 2013 issue of Literary Journalism Studies. It's available free online as a PDF, but I'm posting it here for accessibility. I really want people to read Sethi's book, and in making the case for it I get a little closer to my own rag-and-bone theory of the genre.
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Halfway through this subtle heartbreak of a book, Muhammad Ashraf, the “free man” of the title, phones Aman Sethi—author and co-protagonist, attentive ego to Ashraf’s titanic id—to tell Sethi that Satish is sick. Who is Satish? The one who is sick, of course. Why must you ask so many questions, Aman bhai (brother). And just like that, Sethi’s profile of Ashraf changes direction for thirty pages, becoming an account of sick Satish, whom Ashraf expects Sethi to look after. That’s the price of following Ashraf; sometimes Ashraf’s story is someone else’s story. Sometimes it’s Sethi’s.
A chronicle of the “mazdoor ki zindagi, or laborer’s life, in Delhi” (226), A Free Man will inevitably be compared to Katherine Boo’s third-person omniscient account of Mumbai poverty Behind the Beautiful Forevers, winner of the National Book Award in 2012. But A Free Man—wittier, candid in its confusion, written in a style that might be called “first-person flummoxed”—is a far more intimate book, a romance of sorts. It earns its clichés: Ashraf and Sethi, subject and author, were made for each other; they complete one another. The book they made together is a love story, a document not just of “life and death in Delhi,” as the subtitle holds, but also of the power that inevitably flows back and forth between the narrator and the narrated—freely given and taken, sometimes resented, longed for when it disappears.
A homeless day laborer, Ashraf claims to have a “business-type” mind. But deep into a bottle of his spirit of choice, a rotgut aptly called Everyday, he sounds more like Joe Gould, the genius crank documented by Joseph Mitchell across two decades at The New Yorker. In A Free Man, Ashraf narrates his own oral history of the contemporary world, just as deceptive as Gould’s but seen from Bari Tooti Chowk, an intersection in a Delhi market that passes as Ashraf ’s home. Sethi tries to write it all down. And Ashraf—unlike narcissistic Gould—tries to redirect him. “For you this is all research,” he scolds his biographer. “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” (114).
Like Gould, Ashraf can talk longer than Sethi can listen. Like Mitchell, Sethi sometimes dodges him. Fortunately, Ashraf has Sethi’s cell number. When he calls one night about Satish, Ashraf does not need to ask for help. Sethi’s obligation is implicit. Sethi, “Aman bhai,” has become at least a “medium-type friend,” one who loans rather than gives aid. It is not a matter of stinginess but of mutual respect. “‘Get it?” Ashraf asks Aman bhai. “You’ll lend it,” help, that is, “and I’ll return it. So it’s contractual” (65). That way neither is ever forced to feel like a chootiya, a “pussy,” even if one is a “pavement dweller” and the other a presswallah, a journalist with a press card and a motorcycle.
But a motorcycle is no way to take the sick friend of a friend to the hospital. To get to Bara Hindu Rao, where Satish needs to go, you take a bus of the damned or, at least, severely distressed, their open wounds unbandaged, their skin fungus festering. “The driver plays his part in enforcing the no-talking rule; the person breathing down the back of his neck could be a pukka tuberculosis case” (134). That’s the problem here, “the two dark sails of Satish’s lungs” (141), revealed by X-ray to be afflicted by lesions. So it’s off by auto rickshaw to the tuberculosis hospital, an eighty-rupee ride. Extra for the risk of disease. How to win a bed once you arrive? Sethi assembles a chorus of nameless voices to answer: bring relatives, come alone, cry, don’t cry. It works! Satish is in.
Bhagwan Das, the barber, will shave him. His story begins with “the pipe, the pipe” (147), the one through which he had to piss for three years, installed by doctors after the minivan ran him over. A situation like that makes a man think, and while Bhagwan Das was laid up in bed, Ram Babu was there to help him. Who’s Ram Babu? A “virtuous man” (151). Perhaps a figment of Bhagwan Das’s imagination. But that’s not what’s important. Just like a presswallah to try to pin down the facts that don’t matter instead of the truths that do—such as Bhagwan Das’s divine calling as tuberculosis hospital barber. Ten rupees a customer for a shave and five minutes of friendship, eighty to 100 customers a day. Not a bad way to make a living, so long as you don’t catch tuberculosis and die. Satish does die. Poor Satish! We never really knew him. “Now there is only Singh Sahib in Bed 56.” Who’s Singh Sahib? Don’t ask. The sheets, meanwhile, “still bear unwashable traces of their many previous occupants. A man-sized sweat stain darkens the length of the bedsheet—a trailing afterimage of countless coughing, sweating, retching bodies” (157).
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I know; you see what I just did there. I aped the free-associating style of A Free Man. That’s usually a cheap trick in a book review, but here I mean it differently, or differently enough, I hope. Mimicry, in the practical rather than theoretical sense, has long been a strategy of particular importance to literary journalism, one of the means by which writers establish their own contractual relationship with readers. The writer-as-mimic proposes a kind of authenticity or, at least, fluency. The writer-as-mimic says, “Look how well I speak the local language. That means you can trust me.” At its worst, as in, say, Tom Wolfe’s “Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers,” it borders on minstrelsy. At its best, as in Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules and Men, it becomes a form of crossing over into the world of the subject, still intact as one’s self and yet identified as a worthy student of another’s life, not as ethnographer but as a “creative” writer whose loyalty—to her own story—is made clear.
A Free Man belongs in this latter category. The book begins with Sethi sitting in while Ashraf shares a joint with his chief cronies, Lalloo and Rehaan. Sethi, determined to keep his wits about him, has imbibed heavily as cover for not taking a toke. Now his wits are gone and it’s his turn. “This joint,” he writes, “like everything else that follows, shall be for research purposes only” (5). It’s a gonzo beginning, seemingly in the tradition of Hunter S. Thompson, but Sethi takes a hit and then veers outward to context. The background that in a more formulaic book would constitute the second chapter gets a page and a half here: Sethi had met Ashraf in 2005 while reporting for The Hindu on a proposed health insurance plan for construction workers. “Ashraf had been a terrible interview,” Sethi writes (6). Instead of answering Sethi’s questions, he told stories, spun theories, pronounced on the world. Sethi knew what to do: Get himself a fellowship and a book deal and return to Ashraf, this time to listen.
Sethi spent much of the next five years in the company of Ashraf and his friends. He gets high with them, yes, and drunk, and once almost arrested. He loans money and on one occasion borrows it. He confesses to dutifully asking “undeniably boring questions” (37) and revels in those moments when Ashraf rescues him from his dutiful but shallow pop sociology with an implausible story. “I often toy with the idea of verifying Ashraf ’s stories,” he writes toward the end, “but why should I? How would that change anything between us, except convince Ashraf that I mistrust him and that his story is more important to me than he is?” (195)
Of course, the story is more important to Sethi than Ashraf is; we wouldn’t have this book before us if Sethi had not ultimately given his loyalty first of all to his story; not Ashraf ’s but rather the one Sethi tells about him. Sethi crosses over into Ashraf ’s world, but he never pretends to be Ashraf. He learns a great deal from Ashraf about telling stories through digression and distraction, but he mixes Ashraf’s methods with his own and those of the literary journalists who come before him. Hunter Thompson, sure; and probably Joseph Mitchell. (Sethi spent a year in the midst of his research at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, over which Mitchell justly looms.) There are echoes of Ben Hecht’s 1001 Afternoons in Chicago here, too, in the way Sethi folds his stories-within-stories up into bittersweet fables that end abruptly. But perhaps that’s Ashraf’s influence: He is a master of the unresolved vignette. Sethi is his understudy.
Together, Ashraf and Sethi return many times to Ashraf’s self-styled creation myth, his almost-life as a medical student. His mother, a widow, had taken work in the house of a Dr. Hussain. “Depending on which interview tape I consult, Ashraf came to Dr. Hussain’s house when he was five/eight/ten,” Sethi writes (24). No, the reader can imagine Ashraf saying as he peers over Sethi’s shoulder, watching him type. LISTEN, Aman bhai. Aman bhai does. For a page he writes as if watching teenage Ashraf, sent to school by the good doctor, attend to his lessons. Then comes the book’s only real villain, the doctor’s tenant, a gangster named Taneja, who tries to steal the doctor’s house from him and in so doing, Ashraf speculates, sets into motion the chain of events that led him to Bara Tooti Chowk.
“Of course,” writes Sethi, finding the right rhythm for the story, a series of rapid-fire point-of-view shifts. “Ashraf knew all along that Taneja was not to be trusted. Because Ashraf knows everything. ‘I told Dr. Hussain when they made out the lease: never trust Punjabis. But no one? listens to me.’ Except for me, it seems” (27). First, we are with young Ashraf; then, in the present, with all-knowing Ashraf, who is mildly mocked by Sethi. Ashraf speaks to Sethi; Sethi speaks in an aside to the reader. A Free Man spirals out to Bara Tooti Chowk and beyond in similar fashion, through the days and nights of Ashraf and his friends, some of them seemingly born to lose, others tragic heroes, none left with much of a chance.
Through their eyes—or rather, through the eyes of Sethi, sitting beside them, we see medicine, market, and law, Delhi from the bottom up. This is not how the other half lives, it’s how these men live, no more, no less. Sethi writes neither with the telescope of theory nor with the calm gaze of the journalist observing. His view is close-up and blinking. What he sees changes shape before his eyes. He attempts to construct a timeline of Ashraf’s life, but not until he has known Ashraf for several years does Sethi realize that Ashraf had led a respectable life until his late twenties—until, that is, he was as old as Sethi is at the time of writing.
Could Sethi wind up like Ashraf? It seems a reasonable question. And if Sethi were a less-honest writer, or a more paternalistic one, he might let us wonder. But A Free Man—in ways that Boo’s resolutely third-person Behind the Beautiful Forevers can never be—is a book about class. Not the underclass, but class as a current in every relationship, class as a press card, a book contract, a reluctance to taste Everyday liquor and the ability to see Satish through to the hospital. It is a matter of wit—how one tells a story, how one disassembles a building, how one tells another to go to hell—and, of course, resources. When Ashraf is robbed he must borrow two rupees from a friend to use a pay toilet; when a pickpocket steals Sethi’s wallet, Ashraf spots him some tea money until he can connect with a family friend who loans him 6,000 rupees.
That we see these negotiations is what sets this book apart from Boo’s magisterial narrative. That Sethi resists drawing conclusions about a “new India” is what sets A Free Man apart from much of the recent wave of big-picture Indian literary journal- ism—Siddhartha Deb’s The Beautiful and the Damned, Atash Kapur’s India Becoming, Suketu Mehta’s lyrical Maximum City. Fine books, all. But each is bound to its time as A Free Man is not. Even when Sethi gives voice to his anger in a passage on the geography of the Delhi of the poor—the name of each neighborhood followed by a drumbeat, “before it was demolished by the Municipal Corporation,” “before it was demolished,” “before it was demolished” (66)—it’s not so much a sociological indictment as a roll call of the missing, neighborhoods razed, chootiyas gone.
In the end, only Ashraf survives. Maybe. One scheme after another collapses for Ashraf and we begin turning pages with the expectation of coming upon his dead body. Instead, thankfully, Sethi loses sight of him. His vanishing is a blessing; the entire book turns out to be a vignette without resolution. Sethi’s American publisher has categorized the book as biography, but that slights its great achievement as a book made to honor a free man. It is anti-biography, a book that feels closer to life itself than to the after-the-fact business presswallahs and critics like to call a story.