Aman Sethi's book lays bare the poverty, exploitation and the persistent insecurity of ‘informality' of the lives of workers.
“At forty,” says Mohammed Ashraf, “a man starts to fear strangers … At forty his arms weaken. His shoulders sag a bit, his harmonium. His friends if he still has any…”
These straightforward first lines in Aman Sethi's A Free Man, come with shades of historian E.J. Hobsbawm writing on labour in 19th century Europe: “They knew that some time in middle age — perhaps in the forties for the unskilled — they would become incapable of doing a full measure of adult physical labour.” Sethi's simple opening score has the power to keep the reader from putting the book down until reaching the end.
Word pictures strung together imaginatively in simple sentences written in impeccable English recover footloose worker Ashraf, a safediwallah at the time of Sethi's encounters with him, from anonymity. They visibilise Ashraf's ‘medium-type friends', mostly the labouring poor, people like Lalloo, Rehan, Kaka, Kalyani, J.P. Singh Pagal, “the half-mad teller of half-true tales” and Satish, whom “Ashraf loves like a younger brother”, but many others as well, connected in some manner to Ashraf's past and present.
There is Dr. Hussain, for example, “who rose to … prominence in the Department of Animal Husbandry” in Patna and made sure that Ashraf finished school and enrolled in college, but also Bhagwan Das the ex-auto driver who, after recovering from a terrible accident, became “of his own volition” a barber at RBTB hospital at Kingsway Camp.
Moreover, Sethi's telling of Ashraf's tale brings to life “one of Delhi's largest labour mandis” at Bara Tooti Chowk in Sadar Bazaar, “this heaving market … on the streets of which daily wagers like Ashraf live, work, drink and dream.” Many disappear, some go mad and others die here, “the rickshaw pullers and cigarette sellers, salesmen and repairmen, painters and plumbers, mazdoors and mistrys.”
“People vanish all the time Aman bhai,” says Lalloo on one occasion, “you never know what happened to them … Ashraf [is] terrified there will be no one to look for him when he is gone.” As for Lalloo himself, “some boys from Bara Tooti…saw a naked man running along Sadar Thana Road chasing cycle rickshaws … screaming … The chickwallahs on Idgah Road told Munna that the police had found a scarred naked body of a forty-something man who had a steel rod in his leg … They said he died of pagalpan — madness.” Kaale Baba, whom “they used to say…even death couldn't kill,” died either of pneumonia or of heartbreak, Naushad and Rehaan in accidents at work. “The body is breakable. The body with its puffed out chest, its tight, rope-like biceps, its dense building calves. The body that can scramble up walls, balance on pillars, and drag a loaded handcart up three flights of stairs. Dropped off a tall ladder, these bones shatter, these muscles tear, these tendons snap, and when they do, they leave behind a crumpled shell in the place of a boy as beautiful and agile as Rehan.”
Labour turns the world
Work and workers are central to the world we inhabit. Labour makes our world go round. Ashraf's story and the life tales of other workers in Sethi's book bring us face to face with this simple, invaluable truism which also happens to be among the world's best kept secrets. Sethi pulls workers, their work and stories, out from the margins to which they have been pushed, turns out gaze on them and assigns them the value that is their due. He does this with utmost elegance.
Simultaneously, with eloquent simplicity and controlled power, Sethi lays bare for us the poverty, squalor, exploitation, humiliation, maleness, alcoholism — “the quickest way out of Manchester” — demoralisation, mental derangement, petty crime, the outbreak of violent apocalyptic practices, the social earthquakes tearing apart people's lives and the persistent insecurity of “informality” that continue to constitute the lives of most workers. The world of the labouring poor in 19th century Europe lives on. “If anything dominated the lives … of workers,” writes Hobsbawm in The Age of Capital, “it was insecurity … Unlike the middle class, the worker was rarely more than a hair's breadth removed from the pauper … insecurity was … constant and real.”
Ashraf's story and the stories of workers like Lalloo and Rehan are scathing indictments of life, labour and death under capitalism. The description of Rehan falling to this death, the bones shattering leaving “behind a crumpled shell,” speaks equally of Capital producing wealth by savaging, hollowing out and sucking the life-blood from living labour. The emptiness of “A Free Man'(s) freedom,” of the freedom implied in the use of the term “free wage labour” hits the reader hard as the stories unfold.
It is truly remarkable therefore, that Sethi still manages to get Ashraf to speak of the value and meaning of “aazadi” [freedom], self-respect and “akelapan” [solitude] to workers like him, to capture the ways in which workers bring a hint of freedom into their ferociously un-free worlds, loosen their chains and carve out free spaces for themselves in their everyday lives against all odds. “Azadi, Aman bhai, Azadi,” says Ashraf at one point, “…the freedom to tell the maalik to f*** off when you want to. The maalik owns our work, he does not own us … Which is why the best way to earn is on dehadi … After all, even if you are an LLPP, you still have your self-respect.” Or again for example, “today I can be in Delhi, tomorrow…on a train halfway across the country…This is a freedom that can come only from solitude.” “A Free Man'(s) freedom” is not completely empty after all, but only because of the incredible refusal by (un)free wage labour to give up on freedom.
Yet it is true that by the time Sethi finishes telling us his stories it is difficult to miss the resonance with Hobsbawm's reflections on workers' lives in Europe during the Age Of Revolution: “The believer in the second coming, the drunkard, the petty gangster, the lunatic, the tramp or the ambitious small entrepreneur…were apathetic about the capacity of collective action. In the history of our period this massive apathy plays a much large part than is often supposed.” The resonance is unmistakable, however, provided we can see that like Hobsbawm and other labour historians, Sethi too is able to nuance this apathy and not confuse it with passivity.
Sethi, like David Montgomery, historian of the American working class, who died the day I happened to start reading A Free Man, is very attentive to the ways in which workers are strained and diminished, but “what is so palpable in his work,” as Stromquist wrote in an obituary of Montgomery, “is the presence of working-class people as agents in history.”
Informed by the best traditions of writings on labour — not just Hobsbawm and Montgomery — Aman Sethi's A Free Man stands out also for pushing the boundaries of these very traditions and breaking new ground in speaking of work and workers.
(Mukul Mangalik is Associate Professor in History, Ramjas College, University of Delhi)