Where the Sidewalk Ends

A Free Man: A True Story of Life and Death in Delhi BY Aman Sethi. W. W. Norton & Company. Hardcover, 240 pages. $24.

The cover of A Free Man: A True Story of Life and Death in Delhi

Taken out of context, Mohandas Gandhi’s famous remark of 1921, that “India lives in her villages,” lends itself to multiple interpretations. Gandhi might have meant, as indeed he believed, that the country’s bedrock spirit and the traditions to serve it best resided in its rural heartland. He might have referred to pure demographics; at the time, nearly 90 percent of India’s populace of 251 million was rural. He might also have wished to note, by way of political strategy, that an independent India would emerge only if the nationalist movement escaped from the cities and ventured into the villages, kindling the desire for self-rule all across the country.

But when Gandhi did write that sentence in an essay—or, to be precise, when he wrote “India lives in her seven and a half lakhs of villages,” using an old Indian measure for 750,000—he was livid. His country’s educated classes seemed unprepared to accept Gandhi’s championing of the charkha, the rustic spinning wheel, as a symbol of the independence movement, and he believed that this resistance signaled a contempt for rusticity itself. In the essay, which began in praise of the poet Rabindranath Tagore, Gandhi quickly diverted himself into an excoriation of India’s neglect of her villages. He dismissed “city people” as “brokers and commission agents for the big houses of Europe, America, and Japan,” accusing them of living off the rural areas and bleeding India dry. The biggest problem facing India’s villages—poverty—was also the biggest problem facing all of India, Gandhi argued. “It is my belief based on experience that India is daily growing poorer. . . . And if we do not take care, she will collapse altogether.”

India’s chief ailment continues to be mass poverty, but the details of this diagnosis have changed. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister and a man who always reacted tetchily to Gandhi’s idealization of the village, was drawn instead to a narrative born out of the Industrial Revolution: that only industry and urbanization could pluck India out of the squelching morass of poverty. Nehru’s policies inaugurated a long, steady migration from villages into cities; for every hundred people now living in rural India, forty-five live in its cities. All over the world, the idea that cities offer the poor vast opportunity to improve their lives has grown stickier since Nehru’s time; in his 2011 book, Arrival City, Doug Saunders proposed that cities inject poor migrants directly into the bloodstream of the global economy and boost them into better standards of living. So powerful is this belief that, until recently, many chroniclers of India’s poverty—journalists, academics, writers—tended to look to the villages, either missing the poor gathered in urban slums, or glossing over their experience in the conviction that the very fact of their arrival from the rural periphery meant that they were on their way up.

Bucking this tendency, two recent books of nonfiction have gazed long and hard at chronic urban poverty in India. Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers probed the ecosystem of destitution in the Mumbai slum of Annawadi, scrutinizing the factors that can pull one person out of poverty but also those that can push another person in deeper. Even in its relatively tight focus, recording as it did three years in the lives of a small group of people, Behind the Beautiful Forevers is broader in scope than Aman Sethi’s A Free Man, which fixes its sights on a single individual: Mohammed Ashraf is a mazdoor—a construction worker—living on the streets of north Delhi’s Sadar Bazaar, forever either recovering from a hangover or drinking his way into one. He is, Sethi writes, “a short man, a slight man, a dark man with salt-and-pepper hair; a sharp man, a lithe man, a polite man with a clipped moustache and reddish eyes.” This is an agile description: Like the story of Ashraf’s life, it is specific to him and also fits millions of other men in towns and cities across India. And this agility is necessary in a project like Sethi’s, in which the subject must come across as an individual and also act as a representative for the multitudes.

The problem is that the truth about one man may not be the truth about those around him, and recognizing what to extrapolate from one single person’s life is a delicate task. Sethi compounds this challenge by choosing, as his subject, an inscrutable person with a fluid sense of truth. Ashraf is not easy to get to know; he is fond of elliptical philosophical disquisitions, but he doesn’t often descend to telling detail. In 2005, when Sethi, a reporter with a newspaper called The Hindu, interviewed Ashraf for the first time, about his health insurance, Ashraf supplied quotes such as: “If you had studied psychology, you would know that if you sleep without washing your feet, you get nightmares.” The challenge of parsing such gnomic pronouncements is further complicated by their biographical significance. Inexactitude has been stitched into the very fabric of Ashraf’s existence, Sethi finds, and even in hindsight, the stuttering progression of his life is difficult to pin down. Only in their final encounter, more than four years after they first met, does Sethi know enough to draw up an approximate timeline for Ashraf’s past.

In part, Ashraf’s history is difficult to grasp because he has been so nomadic. After his birth in a village in Bihar in 1966, Ashraf moved from city to city, first with his family and later in search of a livelihood. He stayed with his mother in Patna, Bihar’s capital, where he clung to her during the floods of 1975, praying they wouldn’t drown; they didn’t. He got married in Calcutta, but after his brother stabbed somebody there, they returned to Patna to escape retribution. When Ashraf decided to leave his wife and newborn son, he headed west to Bombay, then north to Delhi, then back to Bombay, then to Surat, and finally again to Delhi.

For a year in Patna, Ashraf studied biology in college—an unusual level of education for a resident of a sidewalk. But after he fired a shotgun above a crowd of men who were harassing his employer, he skipped town and abandoned his degree. Instead, as he rolled from city to city, he gathered other skills: building and whitewashing walls, butchering chickens, selling lemons and eggs and lottery tickets and lengths of suit material, repairing televisions. “The ideal job,” he tells Sethi, “has the perfect balance of kamai and azaadi”—of income and liberty—and Sethi reckons that Ashraf may have attained that particular bliss. But it is difficult to escape the sense that Ashraf knows only too well how circumstances have thwarted him—that he is reluctant to discuss the arc of his life because even he is not sure of how and why he got to where he is, stoned and near broke on a sidewalk in Sadar Bazaar.

A Free Man occasionally looks beyond Ashraf to consider a small knot of characters around him: a couple of friends; a tea-shop owner named Kaka, who acts as an informal banker to many of his customers; and Kalyani, an indomitable woman who runs an unlicensed bar. Sethi is so focused on Ashraf that he gives us only rough sketches of this supporting cast. He is, however, far more adept at absorbing the tempo of Sadar Bazaar, and, through a series of sharp vignettes, mapping the curious terrain of a poor man’s life.

We learn, for example, that documents are so crucial to Ashraf and his friends that their owners contrive to store them in special pockets in their clothing, every mazdoor “a walking album paneled with money, papers, phone numbers, and creased photocopies of ration cards.” We learn of the unshakable centrality of alcohol in Ashraf’s days, because cheap liquor, however raw and vile, can cloud his mind efficiently until he needs to go back to work. We learn how butchers plump up chickens with water; how young boys in old Delhi sell—or are even robbed of—their kidneys; and how cargo loaders at the railway station cope with a train that stops too briefly. We understand how ephemeral wealth can be: Ashraf, with a pittance of an investment, once “started a business worth lakhs [of rupees],” only to lose it all in the course of a morning. And we grasp how swiftly life in Sadar Bazaar, always tenuous, can come to a tubercular end: Although the disease is curable elsewhere, these men broadcast the bacteria easily on the crowded sidewalks where they spend their days, and they have neither the time nor the money to dose themselves at length with antibiotics.

Sethi needs time to hit his narrative stride; in the first third of the book, he struggles sometimes to knit together his fine-grained reportage. His rhythm is choppy, and he pauses less often to weigh his own thoughts. When he does, the results are happily worth the wait. The final pages of A Free Man, when first one and then another of Sethi’s Sadar Bazaar friends is ravaged by tuberculosis, constitute the book’s finest section. In one corrosive stroke, the disease strips away the patina of independence that masks the vulnerability of these lives, and Sethi recounts this drama with both fluency and restraint.

Astutely, too, Sethi allows Ashraf’s trenchant voice to flood the book, and Ashraf rarely lets him down. He has, on tap, acid criticism about his government, advice on how to demolish a house, and thoughts on undressing—“be it a goat, a bird, or a woman.” He also has definite, deeply pessimistic opinions about the future prospects of his fellow sidewalk dwellers—opinions so enormously divergent from those held by cheery Indian trickle-down theorists that they may as well be living in different countries. “When you first come here, there is a lot of hope,” he tells Sethi. “But slowly you realize, nothing will happen. . . . One morning you wake up to realize that living isn’t so much about success as it is about compromise—samjhauta. A samjhauta with life, where you stop wanting to be anything.” Even in a book filled with death and misery, this utter extinction of hope is the bleakest knell of all.

Samanth Subramanian is the India correspondent for The National. His first book, Following Fish: Travels Around the Indian Coast, was published by Atlantic Books in the UK in July.