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

By Hannan, Jim | World Literature Today, September/October 2013 | Go to article overview

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


Hannan, Jim, World Literature Today


Aman Sethi. A Free Man: A True Story of Life and Death in Delhi. New York. W.W. Norton. 2012. isbn 9780393088908

Aman Sethi's A Free Man joins such excellent recent nonfiction accounts of India as William Dalrymple's Nine Lives, Katherine Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers, and Sonia Faleiro's Beautiful Thing. Like the authors of these books, Sethi approaches the complexity of Indian society by tell- ing a life story, that of Mohammed Ashraf, a laborer living on the streets of Delhi. Sethi's account is distin- guished by the way his own persona shapes the book in endearing and often humorous ways.

As he spends time with his inter- view subjects in one of Delhi's poor neighborhoods, Sethi embraces and worries about his role as participant journalist. Initially, Sethi drinks and smokes with Ashraf and his compan- ions. "I may just contemplate a hit of that joint-not because I want to, no sir, but because I have to. That joint . . . shall be for research purposes only." Soon Sethi changes course. "We sat down for a smoke: me with my cig- arettes-no more beedis; after a year ... I realized being one of the boys is an experiment fraught with peril." Admitting that he often asks "undeni- ably boring questions," Sethi discloses a fundamental rift between the way he-as a more affluent, well-educated Indian-and his subjects understand their lives: "I am still trying to build a year-wise timeline of Ashraf's life but as far as Ashraf is concerned, he was brought up in Patna and is now in Delhi-everything else can only be accessed via oblique enquiries. …

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