Tehelka Magazine, Vol 8, Issue 31, Dated 06 Aug 2011
CULTURE & SOCIETY
Waiting for Fate
Aman Sethi’s outstanding book is a great ode to lives on the footpath, says Mahmood Farooqui
Keen observer Aman Sethi
Photo: Tarun Sehrawat
The Free Man is the story of a group of workers based in the Bara Toori area of Sadar Bazar in North Delhi. It tells the stories of their days and nights and also struggles to tell their life stories. At the same time it is a homage to the worlds inhabited by his subjects and the worlds views propagated by them. Ashraf, Babloo, J P Singh, Lalloo, Kaka, Bhagwan Das are poor daily wage workers who live on the streets of Delhi. They work as loaders, supervisors, safedi wallahs, construction workers, chai makers, paratha sellers and other sorts of laborers. They cross our vision everyday but rarely emerge in their full humanness. Here they strongly remind us of the universal truth that there is a difference between how people spend their time and how their life spends itself. The Free Man is a loving, respectful and highly engaging peek at their lives.
It is also a rare book because who writes about the poor in India and in which language? English fiction once upon a time used to contain books about the poor, I am thinking of books like The Untouchable, Nectar in Seive and Village by the Sea. Lately we have had the occasional novelist, Mistry’s Fine Balance or Adiga’s White Tiger showing us the putative life of the poor. But in general, those who write about the poor workers do not write in English, barring newspaper reports or academic surveys, and those who write in English do not write about the poor. Which is a pity, because in a country like India, that leaves a very denuded section to create material for writing. For when George Orwell set out to write his magnificent experiences of the lives of the poor, in Down and Out in London and Paris as well as in The Road to Wigan Pier, he gave us books that were more than about poverty. He gave us books that were about people, poor, indigent, starving, dying, scavenging, vagabonding, but always the people he wrote about came to the fore in all their varied humanities. This book too should not be reduced to an account of poor workers in a city. It is a story of the workers, with their dreams, frustrations, failures and schemes.
Schemes, yes, schemes for the future and dreams of success lead us on, all of us. Thus, Rehaan who otherwise works as a palledar has a scheme for getting rich. Buy a jamnapari goat when your daughter is born, give its progeny on batai, keep multiplying them thus, sell off the rams to the butchers, keep the females and thus they will go on multiplying and by the time your daughter reaches marriageable age you will have quite a fleet of goats! Or you could grow pigs and feed them off sugarcane farms and soon enough you could own ‘a large field, a sugar mill, a sprawling piggery and a distillery.’ The only hitch is the lack of the initial investment and the slight inconvenience that Rehan’s father is Muslim so will never allow him to rear pigs. There are other schemes too. All you need to have is ‘a business type brain and a control type personality.’ And these are not impossibilities, you can have it all but lose it all too suddenly too. Like Ashraf, who had a stone polishing business going in Calcutta and a chicken shop in Patna but lost it all.
Now he is a lafaunter, (also called lafander or lafariya in Eastern UP) like the rest of the people at Bara Tooti. They are a particular class of workers, each with their line of work. They are not like the barsati macchhars from UP and Bihar who come twice a year, work very hard, save very hard and return to their kheti in the village. No, lafaunters are urban creatures, prisoners of their whims, with no connection to a family. They can be palledars, safediwalas, thelawala, mazdoor but they can either choose to be free contract workers or contractors’ slaves. They can have their azadi but it is borne of their akelapan. The ‘malik can own my work, not me’, as Ashraf expounds in a very neat Marxian analysis. Where have they come from, why have they come here, where are they going. In Bara Tooti you do not ask that, bara tooti mein aise hi hota hai. They move around cities, live and die there because they are restless by nature, active agents in their lives not passive sufferers but constrained by their circumstances, like the rest of us.
A Free Man Aman Sethi Random House India
226 pp; Rs 399
As Sethi traces the lives of the mazdoors around Bara Tooti he takes us to a great variety of spaces and modes of being. From Bara Tooti and Kaka’s shop to Kalyani’s illicit bar, to Gurgaon where workers lose their kidneys, to RBTB, India’s largest TB hospital and how to get admission there, to Raja Bazar in Calcutta and to the Anti-Begging Magistrate’s office in Delhi. In the process you learn about safedi, mazdoori, demolition, floor polishing, chicken cutting, desi daru (brands like Everyday, Shaukeen, Mafia), how to buy a chheni, how to load and unload a goods train, the advantages of being a lawaris and how China is buying all the scrap from India. However, even if he had not excavated unvisited nooks of our cities, Sethi would still have given us a book chockablock with what they in UP call very typical characters. Ashraf, the business type, who was a mast maula, dil chowda, seena sandook, ***** bandook but now is more like a chusa hua aam is one of the wittiest and brightest characters I have across in a while. He can philosophise, analyse, speculate, scold and produce wonderful wise cracks. As Sethi tries to trace his life and produce a linear but highly elusive timeline of Ashraf’s life, we learn of the misses and heartbreaks that lie behind every lafaunter’s life. Here is Ashraf on friendships, there is hardly a more profound analysis I have ever come across—
“Medium-type friends are those who do not make chootiyas of each other. If I ask you to help me out, it is expected that you will, on condition I actually need your help and am not asking you simply because I am too lazy to help myself. And the same goes for when you need help. And even then, you won’t give me assistance. You will lend it to me. Get it? You will lend it; and I will return it. So its contractual. Dehadi friendship, that’s what it is—dehadi friendship where everything is out in the open and no one is making a chootiya out of anyone.”
Aman Sethi reads from 'A Free Man'
What happens to these lives, where do they go? One by one, they all come unstuck. They become ajnabi to their own selves. There are spaces for them to survive but not to thrive, certainly not for long. Mazdoors drop off tall buildings and die, or they contract TB and die or they become insane and die, they rarely make it to respectable retirement. Social mobility is a possibility for the Indian poor that materializes in rare instances. This funny book then becomes a profoundly sad account of the crevices through which our workers fall. But not before routinely blowing up their week’s earnings in three days of drinking binges on the footpaths. This is a great ode to lives on the footpaths. Footpaths, that great metaphor of our urbanity in the early years of independence, celebrated in films like Footpath, Awara, Shree 420, even in Salim- Javed is today out of bounds for most of them, as well as for our cinema. Their bastis have been shunted out, Narela, Sanjay Colony, LNJP, Yamuna Pushta, all demolished, submerging careers, lives and opportunities in its debris. Soon, they will all be shunted off the footpaths too. Locked up in jails for beggars and vagabonds by the Beggary department, which has acquired a new software, a BIS 2.0 to track habitual beggars but sadly the imported scanners cannot read the dirty fingers of the beggars!
To live and survive on the streets you need hope, abhilasha and also faith, bharosa that one day your fate will turn. Until that time you have to do samjhauta. Ashraf’s travails and his philosophy are not his alone, they are shared by millions and not only by those who live in the streets. Who does not pray to be rich? After all many of us too live out our lives within this triad of feelings, starting out with promise, like Ashraf the biology student at a College in Patna, before fate, marriage and family take their toll on us. Where is our azadi, in fact? Like the best and freest in centuries before him eventually, the Free Man must take to the streets and to the footpath. Sethi has done us an immense favour by introducing us to such people, marvelous people, and by keeping his telling as simple as he could. Eventually this is a book not just about workers of Sadar Bazar or about the city of Delhi but about human beings and how can they can have it all and then lose it all too. All that remains behind is a fixed address, Footpath, Near Garg Sweet House, Bara Tooti, Dehli.
Farooqui is the author of Besieged: Voices from Delhi 1857