Live, Work, Drink, Dream

by Basharat Peer ’07JRN
A Free Man: A True Story of Life and Death in Delhi
By Aman Sethi
W.W. Norton & Co., 240 pages, $24.95
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The Sadar Bazaar wholesale market in Delhi, India, 2005. / Gerald Haenel / Laif / Redux

If I were asked to name the single work of American literature that is most widely read and discussed in cities and towns, colleges and universities across India, my guess would be John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. The choice is natural — conversations in India about rural–urban migration and the struggles of village folk who turn into badly paid and barely protected industrial workers have often reminded me of Steinbeck’s Joad family. And while the worker is a key figure in American literature, particularly over the last century, he is curiously absent from contemporary Indian fiction.

That gap is gradually being filled by a growing number of nonfiction writers. The first wave of “New India” books, published in the last decade, sought to describe and explain the country of a billion people and capture the changes to that country brought on in part by India’s rising economy. As Indian entrepreneurs oversold the story of the nation’s imminent superpower status, correctives to that vision began to emerge as well: the Pulitzer Prize –winning American journalist Katherine Boo ’88BC published her extraordinary account of life in a Bombay slum, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, and the New York–based Indian writer Siddhartha Deb ’06GSAS traveled across the country to report his account of India’s gilded age of new money and new poverty in The Beautiful and the Damned.

A Free Man: A True Story of Life and Death in DelhiAman Sethi’s A Free Man is an excellent addition to these books, which bring into sight the hidden worlds of India’s have-nots. Owing to the high growth rate of the Indian economy over the past decade, the number of Indians working as laborers in construction has more than doubled, from 18 million in 2000 to around 44 million in 2010. Sethi ’09JRN, a young reporter who grew up in New Delhi and worked there for a magazine, sets out to understand the life of just one of those 44 million.

Sethi met Mohammad Ashraf, a forty-year-old house painter, and his friends in a decrepit, crowded part of Delhi abutting the city’s Muslim ghetto. Bara Tooti is a labor market populated by painters and plumbers, salesmen and repairmen, rickshaw pullers and cigarette sellers, mazdoors (laborers) and mistrys (masons), a place “on the streets of which daily wagers like Ashraf live, work, drink, and dream.” It provides work and wages a man can survive on, but it is a hard, exacting place, where the pressures of life often send people into hospitals, drive them mad, or even kill them at an early age.

Ashraf and his friends live on the street. They have stitched pockets in the insides of their shirts and pouches into the waistbands of their trousers — on-person vaults where they keep their money, identity papers, and phone numbers of homes they left years ago. In the mornings, except when they are too hung-over, they squat with their tools in the Bara Tooti and wait for contractors to pick them up for a day’s work: painting a wall, repairing a roof, or lugging bags of cement and piles of bricks up construction- site scaffolding.

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