In Conversation with Aman Sethi

In an interview with Majid Maqbool, Aman Sethi talks about his latest book “A Free Man” where the author reiterates the story of his protagonist Mohammed Ashraf who  studied biology, became a butcher, a tailor, an electrician’s apprentice, yet died as a homeless day laborer in the heart of old Delhi.

In your book ‘A Free Man’, Ashraf, the main protagonist, comes across as a complicated, interesting character who speaks about the lives of workers like him with clarity. He is honest, argumentative, articulate yet confusing and distant at times.An excerpt from the book, which says, ‘Ashraf,I can’t build a timeline if you don’t tell me things.’ To which Ashraf remarks: ‘Fuck your timeline.’ When you met Ashraf during your initial visits to Baratoti, did you know from the beginning that he is going to be the central character of your book? Did you tell him that he is the main protagonist of the book you were writing?

I first met Ashraf in the course of reporting an article for Frontline magazine and was very intrigued by his perspective on the world around him. I subsequently did a 6 month fellowship at the Centre for Study of Developing Societies/SARAI, in which I tried to discover new ways of writing about labour using Bara Tooti as a site for my research. Once I was done with the fellowship, I felt I had enough material to consider starting a book.

At the beginning of the book you say that Ashraf had been a ‘terrible interview subject.’ What prompted you then to stick with him, spend time with him and ask questions even when he wouldn’t open up easily?

Ashraf was a difficult interview subject if you were looking for straight answers; but he was also a wonderful subject in the way that he forced me to think about the world differently and question my questions – if that doesn’t sound too meta.

At one point Ashraf tells you: ‘ Azadi is the freedom to tell the maalik to fuck off when you want to. The maalik owns our work. He does not own us’. That speaks of a sense of dignity which people like Ashraf conserve as a principle while working for their maaliks. Did that make him unfit for the kind of work he was expected to do?

I think Ashraf’s approach to employment forces us to think beyond the binaries of permanent and contract work and to examine what freedom really means. In Ashraf’s world, freedom is not a comfortable space – but rather a hard fought condition that calls for considerable sacrifice.

You did include the interesting timeline of Ashraf, albeit an incomplete one, at the end of the book. Was that an afterthought or did you plan it all along?

I had, and still have, mixed feelings about including the timeline at the end of the book. Sometimes I feel I should have left it out. At best, it is the act of a conscientious journalist; at worst, it is a flexing of journalistic muscle – that I, as the writer of the book, will have the final say. The timeline was an afterthought which I suppose I put it in as a gesture towards the complicated, and uneven nature of my relationship with Ashraf.

Did Ashraf at any point talk about what his Muslim identity meant to him and how it was perceived by his friends and at his workplace? Did that factor in his struggles in Delhi, or did he not want to talk about his religious identity with you?

Well no, not really. At Bara tooti, religion didn’t seem like a defining feature of life on the street. Everyone drinks, everyone smokes, everyone eats meat if they can afford it. Ashraf frequently spoke of his Bihari identity but never quite touched upon the religious aspect.

In your stories about the ordinary, marginalised workers in this book, in their poverty and wretched working conditions, these people keep their hopes and dreams alive even as they struggle to make a respectable living. How did the despair and tragedies in their lives affect you personally? While living with these workers, was it difficult to switch back to your normal life and adjust to your routine work?

Well I would question the easy use of words like “wretched” versus “Respectable”; I think my time at Bara Tooti suggests that everyone doesn’t see their lives as culminating in middle class respectability. Of course, that doesn’t mean that millions of people aren’t striving to join the middle class. Working with people in Bara Tooti really shook my basic assumptions of my conceptions of a well lived life.

As a narrator you are very much present in the narrative and at times you question your own motives of using the lives of workers in your book. Was that a difficult decision to make — to include yourself, your questions and confusions in the book instead of only letting the stories of people like Ashraf and others to speak for themselves?

It was indeed a difficult decision – early drafts of the book did not have my “character” present in the book. But then the narrative seemed forced and dishonest – particularly since I was a participant in many of these stories. If I had left my character out, then to whom were these conversations addressed? I still think Ashraf and Lalloo and Rehaan speak for themselves – the dialogues are translations of audio recordings. Me being there just makes the narrative more truthful (I think).

At one point Ashraf tells you: “This is a brutal City, Aman bhai. This is the city that eats you raw –kaccha chaba jati hai. For you, all this is research: a boy tries to sell his kidney, you wrote 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.” Here he mocks you, the journalist, the writer who has come to them with a purpose: a recorder and notebook to take away stories about their lives. Laloo introduces you to Ashraf as a ‘nice angrezi murgi,’ ‘AC type murgi’. Was it difficult to deal with such scathing questions and comments like these from Ashraf who at times probes your motives, mocks you, for example about the money you will make from their life stories after the book is published?

Not at all. I think this is related to your previous question – if I hadn’t put myself into the book, all this interaction would have been lost and with that we would have lost one of the lesser noticed things about A Free Man; that it is a book about workers yes, but it is also a book about class – about the class of the journalist, the mazdoor, the shopkeeper, and the doctor.

Is Delhi a brutal and unfair city for workers like Ashraf who, despite their struggles to find work, long to come back and live and find work in the same city? Do people like Ashraf still come and disappear from Baratoti?

Bara Tooti continues to be labour chowk – as it has been for so long. Delhi is a brutal city, particularly for women. But we can’t always choose how a city should be – we accept, we struggle, we make do.

What happened to Ashraf? Did he find work and settle down? Did you keep in touch with him after the book was published?

Ashraf died of tuberculosis around the time that the book was published. We stayed in touch right up till the final drafts and then he went missing. Once I had a published copy of the book, I went back to Calcutta to show it to him, but learnt that he had succumbed to TB.

Can you Imagine how Ashraf could have reacted had he been able to read your book, especially what you wrote about him in the book? Or, would he laugh it away in his mast style, saying, ‘you made a lot of money from my fucked up life, Aman Bhai!?’

I don’t know how Ashraf would have reacted. I can only hope he would have read the book and felt that it summed up at least a part of the times we spent together.

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