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A Free Man: A True Story of Life and Death in Delhi Hardcover – October 22, 2012

3.9 out of 5 stars 21 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Review

“A deeply moving, funny, and brilliantly written account from one of India’s most original new voices.” (Katherine Boo, author of Behind the Beautiful Forevers)

“Funny, poignant, and deeply moving, A Free Man is an extraordinary vignette into an extraordinary life.” (Siddhartha Mukherjee, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Emperor of All Maladies)

A Free Man is a brilliant capturing of the language and bloodstream of a city. Aman Sethi has made a book that’s remarkable in its voice and evocation.” (Michael Ondaatje, author of The English Patient)

A Free Man is stunning. It reminds me of that Victorian masterpiece of investigative journalism, Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and London Poor. Aman Sethi ‘gets’ modern India better than any other journalist I know. Not only is he a remarkable reporter and storyteller, but he possesses a novelist’s ear for language, sense of the absurd, and perfect pitch. I’m bowled over, totally.” (Sylvia Nasar, author of A Beautiful Mind and Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius)

A Free Man is a beautiful work of journalism, sympathetic and graceful. The author follows, and progressively befriends, a homeless day laborer in Delhi. What starts as classic ethnography becomes a gripping story, and ends as a homage to a lost friend.” (Esther Duflo, author of Poor Economics and MacArthur Fellow)

“With A Free Man, Aman Sethi comes to the forefront of an extraordinary new generation of Indian nonfiction writers. His compassion and humor is matched by a fierce determination to tell the stories of ordinary Indians, too often forgotten in the scramble for the spoils of the economic boom.” (Hari Kunzru, author of Gods Without Men)

“Funny and disturbing.” (Arundhati Roy, author of The God of Small Things)

A Free Man makes no promise of a happy ending. Perhaps no book about contemporary Indian society can. But it delivers more. It takes readers on a journey they might otherwise not go on. And that the destination is neither secret nor hidden shows that sometimes what matters isn’t what’s beyond our reach. It’s what’s before our eyes.” (Sonia Faleiro - New York Times Book Review)

About the Author

Aman Sethi was born in Bombay in 1983 and attended the Columbia School of Journalism. He is a correspondent for The Hindu and the recipient of an International Committee of the Red Cross award for his reportage.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1 edition (October 22, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393088901
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393088908
  • Product Dimensions: 0.6 x 0.1 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,053,121 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Kindle Edition
This is an incredibly powerful, funny and moving portrait of real-life India, a side that is rarely discussed - the millions who live in the slums and back-alleys, hustling to stay alive and find meaning in their struggle. If their stories reach us at all, it is usually to paint some harrowing image of poverty and misery - Sethi's amazing achievement is to show his characters as real, engaging people. The main character, Ashraf, falls into that grand category of the street philosopher, something like an Indian Neil Cassidy perhaps, who finds freedom in his ability to move endlessly from city to city, never building roots, always running from one set of trouble to the next. Except these are not adolescents seeking hedonism, but people trying to make the most of a situation that might otherwise send them into despair.

Sethi's many frustrations in dealing with the slippery customers are often hilarious, but clearly he has devoted a huge amount of time, understanding and sympathy to these people. His easy-going style gives way to terribly moving passages, and make this one of the most important non-fiction narrative books to appear from the burgeoning Indian literary scene.
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I bought this after reading "Behind the Beautiful Forevers" so perhaps the excellent writing of that book made this book pale in comparison. The main character is talented and intelligent but is a raging alcoholic and drug user making it somewhat hard to be entirely sympathetic. It seems his lifestyle of homelessness is as much by choice as by circumstance.

The writing was decent however the author appears regularly in the story-telling which I find gets in the way of it being an immersive experience like Katherine Boo's book.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a well research book about migrant laborers in India. The reporter does a good job of piecing the stories together, and telling with humor and compassion and without extraneous judgement. The book lacks the pure poetry of Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Book. But at the same time I think the author just gets the context better, and I think this is important.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Interesting look at the lives of workers living on the streets of Delhi. Each book I read on India gives me new insight and depth into the range of experiences there. Just as there is no "one" India, there is no one book on India that will give you the whole picture. This book, combined with Katherine Boo's "Behind the Beautiful Forevers" and Akash Kapur's "India Becoming" have been my background reading for my latest upcoming trip to India, and they have provided a good range of experiences.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Mohammed Ashraf studied biology, became a butcher, a tailor, and an electrician's apprentice; now he is a homeless day laborer in the heart of old Delhi. How did he end up this way?
Once you pick up this book you will not be able to put it down.
India’s vast working class — mistrys, beldars, karigars, mazdoor, rickshaw-pullers, plumbers — are largly rendered invisible. They are everywhere you see, and yet, nowhere seen.
You meet these people, live their lives, laugh and cry with them.
The author's narrative is held together by his attempts to interview Ashraf. Over a period of time, he forms a bond with Ashraf and his labourer friends — the crazy Lalloo, the muscular Rehaan, the dying Satish, Kaka the tea seller, and many others. He smokes with them, drinks with them, gets stoned with them, and becomes more involved in the lives of his subjects than a journalist might be expected to, something that is impossible to avoid when professional interest develops into a human relationship.
You also get to meet Sharmaji, a raiding officer for the Department of Social Welfare. Sharmaji’s job is to catch beggars and have them tried and punished at the Beggars Court in north Delhi. And he is under a lot of work pressure because his department has to make Delhi “beggar free in time for the Commonwealth Games in 2010.”
Ashraf's last words to Sethi the journalist who is trying to get the timeline of his life:
“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 are 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?
Read more ›
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In Bara Tooti Chook, the ideal job has kamai, pay, and azadi, the ability to walk off anytime. Ashraf, our primary informant, Lalloo and Rehaan work as what translates as casual labor. In the morning the potential foremen line up and recruit the workers for the day. There are levels of pay, responsibility, and skill. Ashraf likes to get enough to buy as much alcohol as he wants, food, and tea. He also wants enough time to enjoy them. Ashraf is a slippery man to interview. He is an older guy and has a long history in any number of jobs and cities, but he is impervious to the need for a timeline. Our narrator, the author, spends his time with these men, but finds that their preferred alcohol, made in India, makes him feel embalmed.

This is the world of old Delhi. It is a world the authorities are determined to put an end to. The year of this interview, 2009, over 800,000 people had been displaced by the leveling of slums. Vagrancy is illegal, but one can prove your profession by the calluses and discolorations of certain professions. Everyone comes to Delhi with a plan to get rich. One woman who runs a semi-legal bar has done so. The rest are reliant upon the eventual ownership of a motorcycle and two phones; a goat; or a pair of pigs. Dreams drift through the drinking sessions in the evenings.

I was hesitant on the first page, piqued by the second page, and enthralled by the third page. Despite the constant problem of a coherent life story, these characters acquire real dimensions. Sethi becomes an additional character as he struggles with the role of interviewer. And the Chook, or employment market becomes yet another character of its own. This is a different side of the story, short of many of the ennobling stories that often accompany a story of a slum in India. Yet the stories are noble in their own right. Give it a try. It is a different world.
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