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

3.64  ·  Rating Details ·  755 Ratings  ·  127 Reviews
Like Dave Eggers's Zeitoun and Alexander Masters's Stuart, this is a tour de force of narrative reportage.

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? In an astonishing debut, Aman Sethi brings him and his indelible group of friends to li
Hardcover, 230 pages
Published October 22nd 2012 by W. W. Norton & Company (first published July 25th 2011)
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Goodreads First Reads
2nd out of 5 books — 5 voters
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108th out of 113 books — 8 voters

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Community Reviews

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The blurbs rave about it. If you can stop smirking at the obviously PR induced sound-bytes and look inside the book you'd find it worth a read. In fact it is a recommended read. The writing might be a bit similar to a rushed notes in journal kind but the acute sense of 'people watching' and, awareness of language ('helpery' - a word that I last heard in the college canteen from the canteen attendant) make it a good reason to stick till the end. And, at the end you'd ask yourself whether you were ...more
Sep 30, 2012 Erin rated it it was amazing
I absolutely loved this book--actually finished it in one night! Aman Sethi does an amazing job transporting the reader to Delhi. The people he chose to write about are colorful and insightful. I hope the author decides to do more research on the lives of those struggling in the slums of India. It's a section of the global population that is largely ignored. I truly felt like I was given a window inside the lives of these interesting people.
Patrice Hoffman
Oct 30, 2012 Patrice Hoffman rated it really liked it
*Won through a a Goodreads Giveaway*

If I were walking through the aisles of my favorite book store, I would probably have not given this book a second glance. I ususally don't read too many biographies so I can only review this book based on how entertaining and enlightening it is for me. A Free Man: A True Story of Life and Death in Delhi is a rather short book and I was able to read it in one sitting and has a pretty interesting voice that isn't stoic or depressing, as I have found some biogra
Gourav Gupta
Jun 21, 2012 Gourav Gupta rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Thought provoking and realistic- whether it's the life of a laavaris, what if I was the one in Ashraf's shoes? What does it feel to be anonymous with nowhere to go, no door to knock on? , or the unpolished language used in the book or the casualness of the casual labourers and of life at Bara Tutti. The book, for most parts, is both a little haunting and disturbing and yet, rejoices the prosaic and trivial nuances of everday life which the privilaged ones take for granted.

Ashraf's life is a mos
Jul 24, 2015 Chetana rated it really liked it
Refreshingly honest. Would say it's better than Katherine Boo's 'Behind the Beautiful Forevers' - it's much more personal and sensitive to the author's position in the class/caste hierarchy.
Sep 24, 2011 Ankur rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: owned, 2011
when i bought this book, i had no idea it was as much a story of Delhi, as it is of the protagonist - md Ashraf. And that was a pleasant surprise!

For this gem, and gem of a book it is - is not the story of Delhi that we see in Khushwant Singh's Delhi or Dalrymple's City of Djinns! this is the story of the Modern Delhi - the 'glistening metropolis of a rising Asian superpower' - A city constantly under construction and the biggest magnet around for migrants from Northern India. And its brutally h
May 20, 2012 Maheep rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Sep 20, 2012 Angie rated it really liked it
I very much enjoyed reading this book. I struggled with the first part of the book trying to wrap my mind around all the foreign words and phrases. As I became more familiar with the writing and characters it became easy to lose myself into this book. This is a book that I most likely would never have experienced without the Goodreads First Reads program and I will forever be greatful for the opportunity to share in the lives of the author and characters even for a short time. I would recommend ...more
Emily Boivin
Sep 17, 2012 Emily Boivin rated it it was amazing
Sep 24, 2012 Kammie marked it as to-read
Shelves: first-reads
I love books about India, so this sounded VERY interesting! I can't wait to get it and to read it.
Apr 06, 2013 Vikas rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A free man, for sure will never leave your mind free of thoughts, once you have put down the book. It’s one of the rare books which will leave an impact on you for a long time. I guess it will take a long time for me to avoid thinking of Ashraf's character when I look at laborers’ sleeping on the pavement and wondering how long they have been away from home and for what reason.
In a very subtle but detailed narration author has brought in very touchy topics. The BIS system for beggars, the condit
Oct 17, 2012 Blue rated it it was amazing
Thank you Goodreads First Reads for this great book!

At a point in my life when I feel tied down to a not-so-great job, desperately looking for a better one, or fantasizing about irrational alternatives (like opening an indie bookstore!) to be free of dysfunctional offices and bad bosses, the idea of working and living wherever and whenever you want, working for money and living until the money runs out, leaving a city at the drop of a hat to go live and work somewhere else for a few days or mont
Christopher Litsinger
This was a fairly interesting book focused on day labor in Delhi, and one laborer in particular. It wasn't brilliant, but it kept my interest and had its moments:
But why am I telling you about Raja again? How did we start this conversation? I remember now — I was telling you the way home from Raja’s house. But for that I had to first tell you where his house was and then of course how he got the house. Funny how every short story is actually just the beginning of a really long one.

‘The santrash
Sep 24, 2012 C.P. rated it it was amazing
**I received this book free of charge courtesy of Goodreads First Reads Giveaways**

Wow. Just wow. This book has left me speechless, I am sure I cannot do it justice in a written review but I will try.
This is the true story of one reporter who followed homeless workmen throughout their day on/off for years in Old Delhi. In particular a man named Mohammed Ashraf. He wanted to get their perspective on things and used an audio recorder & hand written notes throughout his interviews with them. T
Hera Diani
Apr 11, 2013 Hera Diani rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: kindle
Amid the streets of Bara Tooti Chowk, one of New Delhi’s oldest and largest labor markets, and in between marijuana joints, shots of cheap liquor and good old tea, Mohammed Ashraf offers insights on what it is to become a 40-year-old (“a man starts to fear strangers”) on the career ladder for construction workers, and the creed of his profession. “Azadi, Aman bhai, Azadi. Azadi,” says the house painter. “Azadi is the freedom to tell the maalik to f**k off when you want to.”

Ashraf is the main cha
Dylan Mcarthur
Nov 26, 2012 Dylan Mcarthur rated it really liked it
What is a human being worth? James Joyce lampooned the typical thinking on this in Ulysses: "You love a certain person and this person loves that other person because everybody loves somebody but God loves everybody." God may, but humankind sure doesn't---if you need proof, take a look at modern-day India. "A Free Man" tries to understand the life of day-laborer Mohammad Ashraf, an itinerant alcoholic with a past full of painful failure. The book begins cheerfully---Ashraf claims that his way of ...more
Dec 03, 2012 Lisa rated it did not like it
I've begun to think that people generally think it's politically incorrect to give negative reviews of books about very sad circumstances. I am empathetic about the very poor people in Delhi and I think this book portrays the situation I observed there well. The topic and increasing awareness of the poverty and abuse are important. But independent of that this book is really bad. It might have worked as an article but there isn't enough material for a book and the manuscript hasn't been worked e ...more
Umesh Kesavan
Jan 17, 2015 Umesh Kesavan rated it really liked it
A poignant portrait of a day-labourer's life in Delhi. Aman Sethi has enough scope to dramatize the happenings yet he keeps things subtle. What "Behind the beautiful forevers" did for Mumbai, "A free man" does for Delhi. Yet another glowing torchbearer for narrative non-fiction based in India.
Aug 26, 2012 Danielle rated it really liked it
Received this book as a winner of a FirstReads competition. Definitely would recommend it for a colorful, thought-provoking look into Indian culture. The characters are great and kept me interested. I love the opening into the book, as it really grabbed my attention and kept me interested throughout the read. The only complaint I have is that there was a lot of vocabulary I was unfamiliar with because I am not native to the culture. It wasn't really explained throughout the read, so I had to loo ...more
Feb 10, 2012 Mythili rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A really original, insightful look at the life of a Delhi day-laborer. I learned so much from this book -- about Delhi's tiered liquor laws (one set of rules for Indian booze, another for Western booze), about the shifting kinds of work opportunities available for India's underclass, about TB hospitals ... Aman Sethi's approach (of essentially living on the streets with his subjects) is a bold one and it works, but with some complex consequences; by the end of the book I wondered whether his "fr ...more
Bo Nobo Nobo
Jan 31, 2013 Bo Nobo Nobo rated it really liked it
Ever wondered what chilling with some street laborers in Delhi would be like? Well join Aman Sethi on a journey to India's capital city. Sethi will make you laugh, get sentimental, maybe even shed a few tears as you dive into the hard life endured by the masdoors/laborers.

This book was suggested by as a suggested read and I am glad I read it.

I read the book but also listened to it before bed sometimes and I was impressed by Vikas Adam's reading. So, check out the novel either in it's
Neil Gilbert
Nov 28, 2012 Neil Gilbert rated it it was ok
The first two thirds of this book justified the failure of trying to write a book relying on an uncooperative biographee. The last third was his story - which was interesting but not worth the effort of reading that far. This book may have been better suited to a short story. I found the language in the book difficult to understand, as every third word was an unexplained Indian term or location that I was unfamiliar with. I love books about the culture and people of India, like Aravind Adiga's T ...more
Faheem Gundroo
Mar 02, 2016 Faheem Gundroo rated it really liked it

If you hover in the air around Bara Tooti Chowk, Sadar Bazar, Pahargunj, Azad Market on a Alladin Carpet, straight out of an Arabian Night spaceship and point your finger on one of the thousands, millions of Delhites denizens, scurrying for space beneath; some pedaling on their rickshaws- transporting over-weight passengers from New Delhi railway station, drudging along, exhausting last bit of their muscle energy, at times standing tall on their pedals, to thrust the rickshaw forward with force;
Athul Domichen
Dec 22, 2015 Athul Domichen rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Mir (my friend) lent me this book saying that since I am from a Journalism/Media background, I might find it interesting. It was, in so many ways. The narrative is told from the point of view of the author, a young journalist, Aman Sethi himself, looking for stories among the migrant labourers of Delhi, mainly at an area called Bara Tooti, a haven of people of all sorts looking for work in the vast metropolis. The main focus of the narrative is on a man called Ashraf and some of his 'friends'. H ...more
Amit Gupta
Jun 15, 2015 Amit Gupta rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
‘A Free Man’ by Aman Sethi is humorous yet disturbing work of non-fiction. The main subject of this remarkable work of reportage is Mohammed Ashraf, a 40-year-old safediwallah (painter) and construction worker. Sethi, a journalist with The Hindu, first encounters Ashraf while working on a story about various ‘types’ of construction workers (namely mistrys, beldars, karigars, mazdoor, rickshaw-pullers, plumbers). Subsequently, when he needed personnel for a research project he’d taken up on “the ...more
Aman Mittal
Jul 05, 2014 Aman Mittal rated it it was ok
A Free Man: A True Story of Life and Death in Delhi by Aman Sethi is something different from the normal books. It does not has a grabbing impact but if you start it, somehow you will want to read this book. Same happened with me over the past two days. 230 pages, I ended up reading them. I never got the feeling of being hooked by it's words but in awe of reading something different and something based on my home-town New Delhi, I wanted to give it a try.

The major part of the novel is set in New
Jenee Rager
I won this book on goodreads, and was under the impression that it was a work of fiction till it arrived. I quickly realized it was actually non-fiction, and adjusted my expectations. I felt that this story struggled to find a cohesive story line for the first 2/3 of the book. It was just kind of a random series of stories and you didn't really feel connected to one character or another. The final third of the story things to come together and are quite enjoyable.
Pottapinjara Vijay
Feb 04, 2016 Pottapinjara Vijay rated it liked it
A friend of mine suggested this book to me and I found it one offering a glimpse into the lives of laborers, coolies working in the urban areas. One theme that pervades the whole of the book is no one (or at least the most) chooses to be in the bad state one is in. Situation, conditions drive one to that state. There must have been reasons for every case. On their being poor, the author blames on liquor consumption. The book reveals the hardships and risks involved in the work laborers do to ear ...more
Joseph Sverker
I lived in Delhi for two years a few years ago, but I didn't hear about this book back then. That was a shame I think because this book really is in insight into the lives of the "normal" working people in Delhi, the ones that you see at the numerous construction sites and on the streets. In the area where we lived there was much construction going on, and also some big malls being built. At the malls there were tents where workers lived just next to the site. You could see the kids running arou ...more
Sadiq Kazi
May 02, 2013 Sadiq Kazi rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Another great reportage on the lines of Katherine Boo's 'Behind the Beautiful Forevers'. This one though preceded the latter. Few books are as moving in their narrative as this one depicting the lives of the day labourers, and particularly memorable is the life of one such - Mohammed Ashraf!
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“When the news of the creature broke, it was possible that the victims had attributed to the Monkeyman injuries that they had unknowingly inflicted on themselves in their sleep.

'It could be mass hysteria caused by mass media,' he concluded.

Dr. Desai's report lay on my desk for many days: a snap-shot of a city splintering under the strain of a fundamental urban reconfiguration- a city of the exhausted, distressed, and restless, struggling with the uncertainties of eviction and unemployment; a city of twenty million histrionic personas resiliently absorbing the day's glancing blows only to return home and tenderly claw themselves to sleep.”
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