In his first book, A Free Man: A True Story of Life and Death in Delhi, award-winning journalist Aman Sethi delves into the lives of homeless laborers in Bara Tooti Chowk, a labor market in Old Delhi.
What motivated you to write about the lives of the homeless laborers in Delhi?
When I started as a reporter in 2005, I was surprised by the lack of [coverage] on Delhi’s working class. The city had just won the bid to host the 2010 Commonwealth games, and the government had begun a massive program of urban renewal in which hundreds of thousands of homes in slums and working-class neighborhoods were demolished to make way for new infrastructure. I wrote a three-part series on “Working Delhi” to explore the lives—and capture the oral histories—of the workforce. The first part documented the lives of homeless laborers, and that’s how I met Ashraf, Lalloo, and the other characters in my book.
How did the homeless house painter and construction worker, Mohammed Ashraf, become the book’s main narrator?
Ashraf was, to use a Calcutta phrase, an “adda-baz”—i.e., someone with a love for conversation, digression, and discussion. I recorded all my conversations at Bara Tooti Chowk and hoped that a book would grow out of the material. I realized I wanted to write a book about Ashraf’s life: a life organized along very different ideas [than mine] of friendship, solitude, and most importantly, freedom.
What or surprised you the most?
I’ve always been fascinated by how things work: how to make concrete; how to cut up a chicken; why does India have so many cases of multidrug-resistant tuberculosis; how does a man with almost no schooling design a multistory house and build it from the foundation up; and most importantly, how is “common knowledge” passed on from generation to generation? Very few workers at Bara Tooti have any training. Most pick up the craft through a process of apprenticeship and had a coherent theory on their work and their lives. Workers are far more willing to talk about technique than about their personal lives. My project began as an effort to document common knowledge in the construction industry and grew in scope as the workers slowly opened up to me.
Were you able to independently corroborate some of Ashraf’s more fantastical stories?
It was very hard because they often changed each time he told them. I liked the idea of a shifting life history, and I realized that the ability to shape and reshape a life narrative was a part of the reason why so many left their villages for the anonymity of a city like Delhi.