Hilarious Yet Disquieting
A Free Man is a story of Mohammad Ashraf, a mazdoor, which is divided into four chapters, namely Azadi, Akelapan, Lawaris and Ajnabi. Mohammad Ashraf is a safediwallah. Sometimes he is a mazdoor at a construction site hauling sacks of cement up endless flights of stairs; sometimes he is a beldaar mixing the cement that mazdoors bring to him; but he sees himself primarily as a safedi karigar, a master house painter. Mohammed Ashraf is short and stubby, with a narrow but muscular chest and small, broad hands, balanced on strong, flexible wrists. Unlike the tall man, he holds no illusions regarding his abilities or his dimensions; he will never overreach,overextend, or overbalance. Each chapter opens up a tale replete with different feelings and situations experienced by the characters that are less visible to the rest of society despite their role in shaping up the cities. These incidents are sometimes humorous and sometimes unpleasant.
Aman Sethi narrates the story in an easy, simple and cogent manner. He has beautifully and sensibly described the ups and downs of the lives of mazdoors. He meets Ashraf for a research project. While the writer does so, he gets involved in Ashraf’s world so much that he smokes with them, drinks with them and faces some unusual but enriching experiences with them. Ashraf is a clever person who doesn’t answer Sethi’s questions so easily. He is an educated person who can still explain the dissection process of a rat as he studied biology in college. But now he is a mazdoor who has been able to taste the different cultures of different cities, namely Mumbai, Kolkata, Hyderabad, Surat, and Patna. Now he is in Sadar Bazaar.
There are other interesting characters in the book such as Lalloo, Rehaan, Kaka, JP Pagal, Satish and Sharmaji. They are sometimes witty, sometimes profound. Everybody has a story to tell. The book captures the essence of the crowded Delhi, its roads, its people and the transformation of the alcoholic nights into hangover mornings. Sethi, through his meticulous and flawless narrative style shows uniqueness of labour-class people. Azaadi is the freedom to choose work and to get rid of any inhuman maalik. Akelapan is the solitude as there is no way back to home. Life gets dull in a strange city where the going gets tough with each passing day. The only relief is drinking with some known people who have the feeling of vulnerability in common. In the hustle and bustle of the capital city, Ashraf has no friend except Lalloo as he is the one who stands by him at all odd times. The pages that describe the last days of Satish show how these people surrender to the decision of fate and die a death about which neither their friends nor their family members get to know. These are the people who are responsible for giving shapes to the imaginations of the builders and architects. However their own life is devoid of any proper structure.
At the end, Ashraf is in KS Rai TB Hospital suffering from multi-drug resistant tuberculosis. He says, “That’s it Aman bhai. Now you know everything about me—sab kuch. Like a government form: name, date of birth, mother’s name, place of residence, everything. Our faces are pasted in your notebook, our voices all locked in your recorder—me, Lalloo, Rehaan, Kaka, JP Pagal, everyone. Now you know everything. What will we talk about if we ever meet again? The past is done, Aman bhai. In future we will only talk about the future.”
By Monalisa Biswal