A Free Man by Aman Sethi is an unusual book. It took me a long time to get to reading the book and while I was reading it, to actually be taken in by the writing. Books sometimes tend to get that way – they will only be read when they are ready for you. The reader cannot force himself to read a book. There has to be the right time and that was the case with me while reading this one. For that time I overlooked the fact that this was the writer’s first book (normally I get sceptical), and continued reading, till the book marvelled me at some point and it did.
A Free Man is about a man named Mohammed Ashraf – an orphan and is spread across four parts – Azadi (Freedom), Akelapan (Loneliness), Lawaris (Orphan) and Ajnabi (Stranger), which clearly define the essence of the book and string it together. Ashraf has done almost everything – from learning biology to repair television sets to slice chicken. He has lived in different pockets of the country – Hyderabad, Bombay, Calcutta, Surat, and Patna. He has done all that he has wanted to. He is now a construction worker at Delhi’s Bara Tooti Chowk in Sadar Baazar. After a stoned night, he only has questions: Why is he the way he is? How does he make a living? Where does he hang-out and is there ever a way back home?
Aman Sethi is the interviewer and Ashraf is the interviewee and theirs is a wonderful relationship that unravels itself as the book continues. Over alcohol, tea and smoking weed together; Ashraf tells Sethi his life story. I enjoyed the style in which the book is written – Sethi does not mince his words nor does he try and hide anything. The book is in all clarity – defining the politics (and to some extent corruption) of the nation and what it feels like to work here. Sethi also interviews Ashraf’s friends and there are different perspectives there – of the small compromises of life, the struggle and what it is to be human.
As Ashraf puts it quite eloquently, ‘The ideal job,’ Ashraf once said, as if elucidating a complex mathematical function, ‘has the perfect balance of kamai and azadi’….’Kamai is what makes work work. Without kamai, it is not work, it is a hobby.’….’Azadi Aman bhai, Azadi,’ ….’Azadi is the freedom to tell the maalik to fuck off when you want to. The maalik owns our work. He does not own us.’
The above idea and thought beautifully sums up the book. Sethi brings out what we choose to ignore most of the time. Sections of the so-called society that we do not think exist are brought to surface with the hard-hitting reality of how things are with that much-needed dash of humour to ease everything and make it more palatable for the reader.