Magazine article The Spectator

Living on the Brink

Magazine article The Spectator

Living on the Brink

Article excerpt

A Free Man by Aman Sethi Cape, £14.99, pp. 226, ISBN 9780224096904

To write this book Aman Sethi, a journalist for the Hindu, spent five years hanging out with the casual labourers of Bara Tooti Chowk in Delhi's Sadar Bazaar, who live and die on the streets. 'Why, ' asks one of them, 'are you spending all this time and money getting drunk with lafunters like us? What can we teach you?' He explains that he is trying to write a book. Who would want to read it? 'I don't know. I suppose my friends will buy it and maybe a few people interested in Delhi.' But the lafunters have taught him a lot, and for its observation, sympathy and humour A Free Man deserves a far wider audience.

I still don't know exactly what a lafunter is - or, for that matter, a chootiya, masjid or pallu. A glossary would have been helpful, but all the unitalicised and untranslated vocabulary serves to heighten the immediacy of the milieu. Some terms are explained, though: a mistry is an expert or master, and makes roughly 250 rupees a day (less than £3), while a mazdoor or navvy makes between 100 and 150 rupees.

At Bara Tooti they are hired by contractors, shopkeepers wanting to knock down a wall or house owners wanting to turn a balcony into a bedroom. They have helped transform Delhi from a sleepy city into a glittering metropolis.

In their leisure hours, the lafunters smoke joints, or drink at Kalyani's in the depths of Sadar Bazaar. What is Kalyani's? …

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