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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Ashraf wasn’t always homeless. In fact, his beginnings were promising: his mother was a maid in the house of a professor in the North Indian state of Bihar; the professor sent Ashraf to school and eventually to college, where he studied biology. But then the lonely professor’s house became the focus of the land mafia — increasingly pervasive groups of political officials who acquire, develop, and sell land illegally. Thugs began to surround the professor’s house. To ward them off, Ashraf fired at the mafia boss with the professor’s handgun, but missed. The mafia left, but weeks later the professor was killed in a mysterious car accident, ending Ashraf’s hopes of a better life. Fear pushed Ashraf out of Bihar, onto a long journey as an itinerant laborer: he worked as a farmhand in Punjab, a butcher in Bombay, a marble-tile polisher in Calcutta, and a tailor in Delhi before ending up on the streets of Bara Tooti.

Sethi spent more than five years meeting with Ashraf to tease out the texture and timeline of Ashraf’s current life and the many lives he led before coming to Bara Tooti, which makes for a rich, detailed portrait. Sethi’s diligence also reveals the market dwellers’ inner selves, their loneliness, their compassion, their friendships, and, in a recurring theme, their dreams of striking it rich. “Everyone at Bara Tooti has at least one good idea that they are convinced will make them unimaginably wealthy,” Sethi writes.

The person in Bara Tooti who comes the closest to succeeding is Kalyani, an entrepreneurial woman who runs an illegal bar and falls into a lucrative second enterprise. Adjacent to Bara Tooti is a bazaar where grain merchants unload trucks of expensive basmati rice into warehouses. The laborers use iron hooks to load and unload the jute sacks from the trucks, spilling some grains of rice in the process. Kalyani moves in like a sparrow, sweeping up “the mixture of grain, mud, and grit into a gunny sack” and sifting it to get several kilos of “fragrant basmati rice.” A few months into her venture, Kalyani collects between ten and fifteen kilos of rice every day. She strikes an arrangement with the warehouse owners and hires an army of workers to collect and clean the spilled rice.

Neither Ashraf nor his friends Rehaan and Laloo are that fortunate. After cycles of working and drinking, their loneliness and luck do them in. Rehaan, who fantasizes about making money by opening a goat or pig farm in his North Indian village, falls from a ladder on a construction site. “Dropped off a tall ladder, these bones shatter, these muscles tear, these tendons snap, and when they do, they leave behind a crumpled shell in the place of a boy as beautiful and agile as Rehaan,” Sethi writes in one of the most moving passages of the book. Laloo, already plagued with a limp, goes mad and is seen running naked after cycle rickshaws, with fists full of rupees, shouting, “Two hundred rupees for the day. Today I want to see all of Delhi, everything.”

And Ashraf himself, with Sethi’s financial support, moves to Calcutta, looking for an old friend and the life he left behind. But there, too, he ends up on the street, and eventually in a hospital with tuberculosis. Sethi goes beyond the conventional duties of a reporter, helping Ashraf with money and sending his friends over to help, but the two men’s phone calls to each other, which animate the book with great dialogue, eventually stop. Ashraf disappears from the hospital, leaving Sethi only to hope that someday Ashraf will call him at midnight, as was his way, and say, “Aman Bhai, I hope I didn’t disturb you. You should come see me some time.”


Basharat Peer ’07JRN is the author of Curfewed Night, an award-winning account of the Kashmir conflict.

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