Not everyday a Journalist ventures into the streets of the Delhi Sadar Bazaar and least of all has conversations with the daily wagers while smoking, drinking or having tea with them. The book is centered around the life of a alcoholic, chain-smoking painter Ashraf who dwells in Bara Totti, a labor market in Delhi. Sethi is sure that Ashraf’s story is different and keeps pursuing him to tell all about it, initially in vain. There are times when Ashraf’s revelations and philosophy come as a surprise. His musings offer deep insights into the struggle and, poignantly, the solitude of poverty.
He talks about freedom, saying the employer owns the work not the laborer. He says “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.” Although the freedom comes with loneliness, Delhi he proclaims is a big city and you can barely have good friends there. Nobody can be the best buddy, they are just “okay-okay” friends.
Ashraf’s friendship with the author encourages the other dwellers of Bara Totti to talk to him and give interviews although most of the people fear the media guy, with the strange voice-recorder. He talks to the chai-walla, a mad-man and other labors. The conversations with these men expose a part of world we have never seen and barely know anything about its existence. For these people living in luxury isn’t the aspiration, surviving is. They have dreams of being rich but those dreams barely ever come true.
The book tells a lot about Delhi’s liquor laws, the nabbing of beggars in the national capital, TB hospitals and a lot of other practices. It is enlightening, touching and humorous at the same time. It is a well-written, compassionate view of migrant laborers in Delhi and their lives. Aman Sethi’s A Free Man is one of the most compelling arguments for the hypothesis, that Indian non-fiction is at a far better place than the fiction.