A Modern Biography In Vivo
By Aman Sethi
W.W. Norton & Company, $24.95, 230 pages
A Free Man: A True Story of Life and Death in Delhi by Aman Sethi is a great read, a book comfortable in its own skin just like the people it portrays. Sethi started out with the intent to tell the life story of one man, Ashraf, but his attempts to fill in a “timeline” are waylaid over the course of five years. Sethi fortunately wrote the book anyway, depicting the travails and explaining the tenets of street life of laborers in Bara Tooti Bazaar, featuring Ashraf and others whom he formed friendships with. The larger historical backdrop of economic, political, and cultural forces inserts itself insofar as it changes daily life for the laborers. These elements fascinate because they are not forced connections, and because they inform the individual stories. A Free Man is free from a tyranny of form, but that is not to say that there is no form and flow. The everyday stories, especially because of character dialogue, are engrossing and enjoyable. The need to run becomes the need to stay away, and this tension underlies the freedom and invention in the laborer’s life. Sethi shows this effectively by not patronizing or particularly romanticizing his subjects.
Reviewed by Sarah Alibabaie