The past few years have seen several astonishing, deeply reported big books about India -- including "Maximum City," Suketu Mehta's energetic and panoramic 2004 profile of Mumbai, and Katherine Boo's "Behind the Beautiful Forevers," published early this year, which narrates the omnipresent social and religious forces forever squashing hopeful slum residents struggling to rise.
Now comes "A Free Man: A True Story of Life and Death in Delhi," by Aman Sethi, a young correspondent for the Hindu, who went to Columbia Journalism School. It is not a big book -- not even 250 pages long, and focused in tight on its subject. But it is the sort of book someone interested in writing and in the region could delightedly call "a find," because it is so odd and personal and fascinating. Sethi ran into his subject, a usually homeless man named Mohammed Ashraf, while reporting on "a Delhi government bill to provide health insurance for construction workers." Sethi did a slow double-take, savored Ashraf's zesty, wry quotes, foraged up a grant, and found Ashraf again.
The book opens, in fact, with reporter and subject in "a circle of huddled figures," sharing a joint, as Ashraf observes: "At forty ... a man starts to fear strangers ... his arms weaken. His shoulders sag a bit, his moustache droops. His voice might crack -- like a phata hua harmonium." And so the book goes. We see for ourself the intelligent whimsy, practicality and resignation of Ashraf, who used to be sort of middle class, and then tumbled downward through the ranks of workers.
It is not tragedy -- closer to narrative nonfiction black comedy, replete with wild drunks, criminal activity, echoes from a distant family, respite from street life in a dismal hospital, and wistful demise. Ashraf is a storyteller -- we are given to understand that the veracity of any particular episode he recounts is clearly iffy, but so what, as we know the pleasure is in his company.
The book is too for-real to allow any claim that it is about joy in the face of bad fortune. But it is as surely about story as about meaning, a doubled assertion, implicit both in Ashraf's tales, and in Sethi's framing of the man, his wanderings and allies and almost Brownian motion toward his destiny.
It's a reader's privileged view, neither as shallow as slum tourism nor as disrespectful as overheard conversation. We are shown goodness, as a complex and troubled culture (aren't they all!) allows its expression of that virtue. Experiencing Ashraf, and the book, page by rugged page, we may even take on Ashraf's wisdom, and accept and savor the intensity of experience as it comes to us, too.
Mark Kramer is writer-in-residence in Boston University's Journalism Department, and director of its conference on narrative journalism: www.bu.edu/com/narrative.