10 August 2011

A free man by Aman Sethi

Like a journey to the moon
This book tells the story of Mohammed Ashraf, a day-wage worker at Bara Tooti, a place in Delhi where people go to hire labour for construction work. Written by Aman Sethi over a period of five years during which he spent days at a time with Ashraf and his friends, it is partly a diary of his experiences and observations, and partly descriptive narrative. Like the best biographies, this book gives a strong sense not just of the person, his inner strength and demons, but also his geography, culture, politics, and the fabric of society which he inhabits. And Aman Sethi has pieced together this history like a jigsaw puzzle from a number of conversations, much contradictory information, sudden revelations; he has coloured it with his own feelings, insights, and contextual information.

Some people believe that the life of a mazdoor is equal parts azadi and akelapan: independence and solitude. And sometimes Aman Sethi feels he may have asked too many questions:
It’s bad form to keep asking people about pasts that they are reluctant to confront. At Bara Tooti people come and go all the time. A man could get up from a drinking session, walk down the road for a piss, keep walking till he reached the railway station, hop onto a train, and return after a year without anyone really missing him.
But what about tickets?
‘You don’t need tickets. If the checker doesn’t come, you travel for free. If you get caught, you simply go to jail.’ Jail, according to Ashraf – who has never been to one – is an acceptable way of spending three months of a life in exchange for a short train ride. ‘They don’t make you work if you are in for less than six months,’ he claims. All you do is eat and roam the premises.’
It’s a complicated journey that Aman Sethi takes us on, exploring Mohammed Ashraf’s life. How did he get to be head kasai of Fauji Halal Shop in Malad, Mumbai? Never mind – we learn here fascinating details of why speed is crucial for anyone working there.
As Ashraf goes about finishing his half bottle of Everyday,at the haunt of a successful woman entrepreneur, the memory of an Everyday hangover has prompted Aman Sethi to refuse politely. We learn that new recruits often shun this intoxicating brew, in favour of more bombastic brands like Hulchul that shake the very foundations of a man’s being; Jalwa Spiced Country Liquor that speaks of youth, fire and passion; Toofan, infused with the pent-up vigour and vitality of an impending storm; and Ghadar Desi that is a perfect antidote to colonial oppression.
Sitting at the chowk, trying to look sober and employable, Ashraf and Lalloo are saved by the lucky charm he saves for such situations: his ‘kandome’.
The kandome is a broad, heavy brush with long, thick bristles encrusted with paint. The bright red handle is solid wood and fits just right. It is the most useless brush Ashraf owns: it’s too heavy and soaks up too much paint. ‘I bought it when I was just starting out. It looks like a brush a professional would use.’
A well-stocked bag is a sign of tajurba, experience. A maalik likes a workman with impressive-looking tools. At the chowk, where safediwallahs are arranged like mannequins in a shop window, the maalik is drawn to the one with five, six, seven, brushes in his bag. He thinks this man is a true karigar; he has a different brush for each surface. It’s not a brush, it’s a badge of honour. “It’s just like a kandome, Aman bhai. On TV you may stand next to Shabana Azmi and promise to use it, but you know you never will.’
These are people who live on the fringe. They have come to Bara Tooti from pasts in different places around the country. Their lives are expendable to those around them, even to themselves. Each has a different story. The one that chilled me most was the one told to Aman Sethi by Guddu, a young man of twenty-two, who ended up in Bara Tooti when his first dream ended in disappointment. Tired of working as newspaper boys at Lucknow Railway Station, Guddu and a friend took a train to Jaipur in search of a hospital that bought kidneys for about two lakh rupees. ‘We would spend the money in full masti, and when it finished, buy a ticket to Bombay and become full-time beggars outside one of the mandirs where all the film stars come to pray.’
And Aman Sethi hauls us, agog, to the Beggars Court at Sewa Kutir, the place where designated government employees bring beggars to trial and punishment. Begging in the national capital is a serious offence, and under the Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1959, the Department of Welfare can arrest anyone ‘having no visible means of subsistence and wandering about, or remaining in a public place in a condition or manner, [that made] it likely that the person doing so exists by soliciting or receiving alms’. How would these skilled government employees ever know the difference between any of the Bara Tooti majoors and a beggar? Aha – they certainly can, it’s easy, read this book to learn the unmistakable signs.
Unlike the Beggars Court, which has an office with a signboard, the kidney snatchers of Ashraf’s nightmares are harder for Aman Sethi to find. But he did meet and interview some of their victims whose stories are also given here.

Grimmest of all are the wards of RBTB, the Rajan Babu Tuberculosis Hospital where hapless families leave victims of drug-resistant tuberculosis. To get discharged doesn’t mean the person is cured. But it is not an entirely bad thing either – because even if someone is dead, or even if he or she will now carry the infection out to others – it does mean that a bed is vacated for another languishing patient. To visit RBTB is to risk illness and possibly death – but it’s certainly safer than driving an autorickshaw. One of my favourite parts of this book is when Aman Sethi’s sister visits one of the Bara Tooti gang there, to bring him underwear, a mug, a bucket, and some soap.
The writing in this book is exceptional.
The smell of blood is overwhelming; it prowls along the alleyways of Kasaipura like the ghosts of the buffaloes that lie dismembered before me. The floor is sticky – a chip-chip texture that holds my shoe soles just a fraction more than the tarmac road outside, but could as easily turn slick and treacherous. It’s a bit like walking on congealed blood – in fact, that’s exactly what it is.
And here’s a description that felt to me like poetry:
Money: About one hundred rupees.
The half bottles are over. Fifty rupees have been spent on something, but on what exactly? Ashraf isn’t sure. There was some food – boiled eggs, maybe a roti or two? With dal. If there was roti, there must have been dal. Possibly a cup of tea. Six rupees were spent on squishy packets of water – that is certain.
The pauwas, or quarter bottles, are still intact; Ashraf keeps them in his breast pocket. He keeps the money in his shoes. He wraps his shoes in his pants. He puts his pants under his head – like a pillow. He throws a shawl over himself.
Even the translations show the author’s flesh-connection with language. The Urdu word kaafi Aman Sethi describes as, “Enough: not ‘just about enough’ but closer to ‘more than enough’ – enough with an emphasis”.
Towards the end of this book, Aman Sethi becomes involved with Ashraf’s life in a way that builds suspense for the reader and brings an experience of the terrible pain and cruelty of life. I think it unlikely that anyone who reads this book will ever get any closer to someone like Mohammed Ashraf than between these pages.

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