A Free Man A True Story of Life and Death in Delhi

BOOK: A Free Man A True Story of Life and Death in Delhi
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W. W. Norton & Company

New York • London

For Anjali and Rajesh Sethi

one  AZADI, or Freedom
two  AKELAPAN, or Solitude
three  LAWARIS, or Forsaken
four  AJNABI, or Stranger


or Freedom


t forty,’ says Mohammed Ashraf, delicately picking at the joint’s smouldering cherry, ‘a man starts to fear strangers.’


‘At twenty, he is cautious; at thirty he is wary, suspicious by thirty-five, but fear? Fear starts at forty.’

‘Accha bhai, now pass.’

Mohammed Ashraf looks up with an air of enquiry in his bloodshot eyes. Our circle of huddled figures stares back hungrily. He takes another hit from the joint. ‘At forty his arms weaken. His shoulders sag a bit, his moustache droops. His voice might crack—like a phata hua harmonium. His friends, if he still has any…’

‘Pass, Ashraf bhai. Pass.’ Muffled, yet insistent, a voice has emerged from somewhere in our midst. For a quarter of an hour we have sat in silence as Ashraf has extolled the virtues of ticketless train travel, counted the blessings of being in jail, and, with a rolled-up shirt in one hand and a slender paintbrush in the other, demonstrated the proper technique for skinning chicken. We have stifled our yawns, crossed and uncrossed our legs, and swatted away squadrons of mosquitoes as Ashraf has pulled and sucked and ashed at the joint wedged firmly between his fingers.

‘Sorry, does someone want this?’

The crowd shuffles. In our circle, the joint has moderated conversation; microphone-like, it singles out its holder as the speaker. Tranquillized by the ganja, exhausted by a long day of work, Ashraf is nonetheless invigorated by the ease with which he has commanded the undivided attention of all present. We’ve stared fixedly as he’s brought the joint to his lips and taken deep, satisfying drags; we’ve inhaled as he’s inhaled, winced as he’s choked on the sharp, bitter smoke; we’ve held our breath to allow the weed to exert its mystical powers, and exhaled as he’s expelled smoke from his lungs.

‘Arre, pass, Ashraf bhai?’ Rehaan asks again. They look at each other for the briefest of instants, wondering if the impoliteness of hurrying someone’s hit is outweighed by that of holding the joint too long. Ashraf knows that he can hold off passing the joint for only as long as he can keep us immersed in his tale, and we have finally run out of patience. It was an interesting story, but a timer has finally gone off in someone’s head. I can hear it; it sounds like the tapping of a screwdriver against an empty tea glass. It’s Lalloo.

Lalloo has finished his whisky, Rehaan has smoked his beedi down to his fingertips, and I? I have maintained a firm grip on the edge of the concrete stair, and am happy to report that I haven’t fallen over.

The joint has passed on: Rehaan, its newest custodian, is desperately peddling a tale of rutting pigs, fighting mynahs, and the sorrow of the Ranikhet disease, scourge of poultry farmers. He knows he’s on borrowed time—headed inexorably for that moment when someone sitting to his left shall look up at him and, almost inaudibly, mutter, ‘Pass?’

If I could speak, I would urge Rehaan to take his time and savour it. But the whisky has thickened my tongue and the beedis have scorched my throat; I fear the joint might kill me. Lean back, Rehaan, and tell us the longest, juiciest story you know. Let it start from when you were two years old, scrabbling around in a sunny yard in a village in Uttar Pradesh, and stretch right up to today, twenty years later: when you have lost your virginity, started smoking, stopped speaking to your mother, fallen out with your brother, and fallen in with this lot outside this shuttered shopfront at this crossing at seven in the evening in Sadar Bazaar.

But I can’t speak for fear of puking up the raw paneer and freshly boiled eggs that I ate fifteen minutes ago. Hopefully by the time Rehaan finishes his story, the pillar with the surveillance cameras will stop spinning, my seat will stop swaying, the light from the street lamps will no longer crash against my eyelashes and shatter into a thousand luminous fragments, and I may just contemplate a hit of that joint—not because I want to, no sir, but because I have to. This joint, like everything else that follows, shall be for research purposes only.

‘I’m looking for a man named Mohammed Ashraf,’ I said to a short, scruffy man who identified himself as Lalloo. ‘I had interviewed him for a story last year. I’m from the press.’

Mohammed Ashraf is a short man, a slight man, a dark man with salt-and-pepper hair; a sharp man, a lithe man, a polite man with a clipped moustache and reddish eyes.

I first met him in December 2005 while working on a story on a proposed Delhi government bill to provide health insurance for construction workers. I had spoken with all the experts, got all my quotes, and arrived early one morning to meet some construction workers and fit their views into a story that, for all purposes, I had already written. As I recall, Ashraf had been a terrible interview subject. He had refused to answer any questions directly, choosing instead to offer up quotes like ‘If you had studied psychology, you would know that if you sleep without washing your feet, you get nightmares.’ After this cryptic insight he had clammed up and refused to offer his opinion on the Building and Other Construction Workers Act of 1996 and its proposed successor.

Six months later I was back in Sadar Bazaar, this time on a fellowship, searching for that very same Ashraf with the bombastic quotes. It would be a struggle to convince him to actually answer my questions, but I had time and Ashraf, as my editors and I had noted, made for excellent copy.

‘Ashraf? ASHRAF!’ Lalloo shouted as we picked our way through the maze of alleys behind Bara Tooti Chowk, Sadar Bazaar. ‘Look what a nice angrezi murgi we’ve found you!’

‘An AC-type murgi,’ added Rehaan, a muscular young boy of about eighteen, who sidled up to the two of us, and had crushed, filled, and smoked a joint by the time we found Ashraf nursing a hangover in a shady corner of Barna Galli.

‘You’ve come back,’ said Ashraf, pulling on his beedi. ‘Are you working on another story?’

‘No, no,’ I replied. ‘This time it’s a research project. I want to understand the mazdoor ki zindagi—the life of the labourer. I want to interview you some more.’

‘What happened to the last one? Did you bring a cutting of your article?’


‘Well, bring it next time. Do you want some tea?’

Peering closely at the magazine I brought on my next visit, Ashraf tried not to sound disappointed. ‘But this doesn’t have my photo! This after you made me pose with a brush in one hand.’

‘But I quoted you,’ I pointed out. ‘Thrice.’

‘I can see that. But no photo.’

And that’s how I fell in with Ashraf, Lalloo, and Rehaan. They made for an odd crew: Ashraf, the quick-witted dreamer of schemes, Lalloo, who walked with a limp and served as a foil for Ashraf’s ideas, and Rehaan, the quiet boy with a smouldering joint who didn’t say very much but listened to everything. It’s hard to tell if they even got along, but then getting along is largely besides the point in Bara Tooti where the jokes are dark and largely unintelligible to outsiders, and conversations tangential and prone to the most unlikely non sequiturs.

‘I knew this man,’ Rehaan once said, apropos of nothing, ‘who used to inject his testicles to get high. What do you think of that, Aman bhai?’

Nothing, Rehaan. To be honest, nothing at all.

‘Aman bhai?’ Despite his joke all those months ago about me roaming around Bara Tooti Chowk like a headless chicken, I have forgiven Rehaan. He is a polite boy. Like now, for instance, he jogs me out of my reverie and hands me the joint.

‘Ah, the joint,’ I mutter incoherently. I really should not take a hit of this. But after months of listening to the three complain about the perils of construction work, the horrors wreaked by the police and the sorrow of exile, this is the first time I have been invited along to do something fun. My recorder appears to have died of its own accord. Perhaps if I continue to take notes, at least some good will come of this evening.

It’s getting late. On the streets beyond our sheltered niche, shops down their shutters, workers down their tools, and the world slowly heals itself in preparation for a long, bruising tomorrow. Rickshaw pullers and cigarette sellers, salesmen and repairmen, painters and plumbers, mazdoors and mistrys count out the day’s wages and make their way to the liquor stores on the cornerstones of every crossing in this heaving market.

Shielded from the din of the streets, Lalloo snores gently to himself, Rehaan curls up like a baby. The joint lingers like an unanswered question. Ashraf and I sit stoned on our respective stairs, staring at each other through glazed eyes. ‘It’s still burning, Aman bhai. Pass?’


century ago, there were no directions to Sadar Bazaar—the market was where most journeys began. One of Delhi's oldest bazars, Sadar began as a grain market on the banks of a stream that ran all the way from Haryana, right through Azad Market Chowk, past the crossing where Novelty Cinema still stands, and up towards Red Fort before joining the Yamuna river. The waterway has long been paved over; but traders talk of the urli and palli sides of Azad Market as if the bazaar were still riven by a stream rather than a noisy, throbbing strip of traffic.

Unlike the more scenic parts of the city, Sadar Bazaar shows up on tourist maps of Delhi as the large empty space between the backpacker haven of Paharganj and picturesque Chandni Chowk. Her gruff shopkeepers are wholesalers of goods shorn of glamour: plastics, metal products, raw cotton, grains. Till recently, the bazaar functioned like a small city: goods produced at one end of Sadar were stocked in shops sold at the other. After a 2004 Supreme Court order banned factory work within city limits, the factories have fallen silent, but you can still buy fizzy drinks in Choona Mandi that have been bottled in the nether regions of Paharganj.

Ashraf lives in Bara Tooti Chowk, the crossing of twelve taps, one of Sadar’s road intersections. By dint of being older than most of Delhi, every lane, alleyway, and dead end in Sadar has its own claim to posterity that is kept alive by its shopkeepers, tea sellers, manual labourers, and policemen. Bara Tooti is no different.

‘Mahatma Gandhi used to come here all the time,’ said an old shopkeeper I once interviewed. ‘He came to supervise the burning of foreign goods during the azadi andolan.’

‘Did you ever see him?’

‘No, no, I was just a boy then. But I did see Indira Gandhi give a speech here. She was a minister in Lal Bahadur Shastri’s government. You can still see the tree she stood under. It’s either the one under the shop just opposite this one, or the tree that was cut down last year.’

‘The Sadar Thana down the road was the first police station in Delhi,’ said a policeman standing under what could be Indira’s tree. ‘The angrez used it to lock up all the freedom fighters.’

‘Did they ever get Gandhi?’

‘Not that I would know.’

Today Bara Tooti bears few traces of Gandhi, Indira, or the imprisoned freedom fighters. And despite its name, there isn’t a faucet in sight, let alone any drinking water. ‘I think the taps were installed by the Mughals,’ said the proprietor of Garg Sweets, a prominent confectioner at the chowk. ‘I think it was the British,’ said his son sitting next to him. Given that there is no trace of them, the running joke is that they must have been installed by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi.

The chowk is now one of Delhi’s largest ‘labour mandis’, literally a labour market, on the streets of which daily wagers like Ashraf live, work, drink, and dream. To get there, I would usually ride up early mornings on my motorcycle from Connaught Place, straight past New Delhi Railway Station, under the Daryaganj flyover, along Qutb Road, before turning left through the wholesale cotton market at Rui Mandi.

BOOK: A Free Man A True Story of Life and Death in Delhi
2.05Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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