On the Itinerant as Philosopher: An Interview with Aman Sethi

Aman Sethi’s A Free Man, a portrait of a day laborer in modern Delhi, is the latest contribution to an emerging subgenre of creative nonfictional books about Indian cities—itself a subset of a ...

Aman Sethi’s A Free Man, a portrait of a day laborer in modern Delhi, is the latest contribution to an emerging subgenre of creative nonfictional books about Indian cities—itself a subset of a growing fascination with the poetics and practices of the metropolises of the Global South—that includes Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City (2004), Katherine Boo’s Behind The Beautiful Forevers (2012), and Amit Chaudhuri’s Calcutta (2013). A Free Man is not a tract, not a plea for social justice, not a cri de coeur about subaltern immiseration; it offers countless insights into the quotidian lives of Delhi’s poor, but is also funny, fabulistic, full of vagrant personality. Following a public conversation at New York University between Sethi, Nigerian American novelist Teju Cole, and British Asian writer Sukhdev Sandhu, this interview was conducted by phone between New York and Addis Ababa on December 12, 2012. Belying techno-boosterist platitudes about the speed and ease of contemporary communications, a poor connection meant that the recording was fragmented, full of dropouts and sonic sputtering, making transcription—and subsequent publication—a lengthy process.


SUKHDEV SANDHU (SS): In some countries, I suppose particularly in the UK, journalism is a profession that people despise only slightly less than that of politicians. What is the status of journalism in contemporary India?


AMAN SETHI (AS): It is definitely mixed. There’s a lot about the Indian media that appalls the public for very good reasons. There are numerous allegations that journalists in India are too close to power, that journalists in India are inherently conservative. And a lot of that is true. But when you’re traveling through places outside the metropolis, my interactions with people suggest that they still think that the media has a significant role to play in somehow checking power. So I don’t think they’re despised, yet.


SS: Indian journalist friends of mine who may be trained, or partially trained, in the West, or who’ve lived in a number of countries, they often talk about India—and also China, and some other countries—as factories of stories. That almost on a daily basis, there are dramas that would consume Western media organizations for a year or for a decade. And they almost encourage their friends who have an interest in storytelling or narration to go East, to go to India, because there it will be fertile for their imaginations. Is that a point of view that you have some sympathy for?


AS: Well, I think it’s a good idea to ask yourself why you write. That is a question that I’ve been asking myself a lot over the past few months. Until this year, I’d only worked in journalism in India, and, a few months ago in August this year [2012], I moved to Ethiopia to cover Africa, which is, of course, a very large leap for my newspaper. In India, I think journalism happens when you can hold power accountable for attacks. Now that I’m in Addis [Ababa], I’m trying to figure out what my role means. I used to cover the Maoist insurgency and mining and corruption. In Africa, my role is more explanatory and still, there’s huge amounts of nuance that I’m missing because I just haven’t been born in that context. I would basically say that journalists should probably just follow the story that they find interesting, rather than, you know, deciding that one part or another part of the world is more exciting.


SS: What was your journalistic training like? You studied both in Chennai and at Columbia. Were there different emphases? Lots of people regard certain American journalism programs as the gold standard for anyone aspiring to be a reporter. What were comparative experiences like?


AS: So, I think it is true that a lot of people in India do think that programs like the Columbia journalism, or, you know, the NYU program are programs to aspire to. Chennai is in some ways modeled on the journalism school at Columbia, and occasionally professors visit from there. I found the Chennai school very good, because the good professors taught in a way which was almost like a crash course on the humanities. I found myself reading Foucault, for instance. At Columbia, I deliberately chose the business journalism program because I found that in the course of my reporting in India, on mining specifically, I found I couldn’t really understand the documents. So I came to Columbia with a specific focus on learning how to read a balance sheet and these kinds of things.


SS: In the West, people are very excited about their perception, or how they see India. They talk about the prominence of magazines such as The Caravan or Frontline. There are many Western organizations—media companies—investing in Indian companies. In a period of recession and declining readership, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow seems to be the Indian literate middle classes. At the same time, there’s an idea of an ever-growing interest in Indian nonfiction, and [this] globally. As someone who’s worked in some of those organizations, does it feel like an exciting or prosperous time for the kinds of writing and journalism you’re interested in?


AS: One question is the growing market; that’s of course true. A lot of it has to do with demographics; it has to do with a rising literacy rate. There’s going to be a few more years of, you know, increasing literacy, more and more people. More and more readers, actually—the size of the market’s still growing. And then of course there’s English literacy—then English literacy as a subset of general literacy. And that’s also, of course, rising. So there is truth to the idea that we’re still finding new readers. That it’s not a zero-sum game at this point, that magazines and newspapers can grow without taking readership away from each other. So on that front, it is an exciting time for writing in the Indian newspaper industry.

But Indian newspapers aren’t necessarily breaking new ground when it comes to reportage. There’s a huge difference between magazine readership and newspaper readership. And when it comes to books, in India, most print runs are like four or five thousand copies, six thousand copies. Books and magazines are relatively small numbers.


SS: You’ve said that you read more fiction than nonfiction. Which kind of writers are you drawn to?


AS: I started reading quite late. So basically, when I finished my undergraduate degree, I embarked upon a program of self-education. Over the last few years, I’ve been reading a lot of Dostoyevsky. I just read Dickens for the first time in my life. I’m now in Addis, where there aren’t too many bookstores. A lot of the classics are available for free on the Kindle. The copyright has expired, so I’ve just been downloading these and devouring them. I just finished Bartleby, the Scrivener.


SS: How does reading the classic novels filter through into the way that you do your work, and that you see the people and the landscapes through which you move?


AS: Well, so, for instance, I get to read different people for different things. For example, Dostoyevsky. I find a frantic energy that’s kind of pulsing through his writing, which I just adore. It’s very interesting talking about it because right now I just finished reading Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom.

There’s this period where Mandela finds himself in jail and starts reading the classics. He reads War and Peace, and he’s particularly moved by General Kutuzov, who’s happy to be unpopular and is happy to let Napoleon come. Kutuzov knows it’s one thing to talk the talk, it’s another to fight that battle. I found myself interested in Kutuzov first when I was in Chhattisgarh covering the insurgency. I don’t know if that filtered into my writing, but it definitely makes the story feel far more dynamic, because then you’re building backstory for the insurgents that may not exist. But at the same time, you’re suddenly far more receptive to them.


SS: That takes me on to A Free Man. Is it useful to think of Mohammed Ashraf as a character in a story, rather than in a more sociological way?


AS: That’s an interesting question because, in a number of reviews, there seems to be an inability to look beyond Ashraf as an artifact. I find that kind of strange, because the book itself is consistently being reviewed as an exposé on poverty, which is fine. But for me, Ashraf is more of a philosopher than someone who should have another life. Ashraf, as a person, has a kind of crazy, well-thought-out view of the world. Ashraf is free, but Ashraf is poor. You can’t really say they’re oppositional things, because Ashraf has chosen a life of making do with poverty, which allows him a certain world of freedom. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I think that if you decide to leave the world behind so that you can discover yourself, then that is freedom. And if you decide to leave that world to be free, then you are actually in a world of incredible hardship. So Ashraf, as a person, rather than, as you put it, a sociological concept, I think he’s kind of a phenomenal person. I think that Ashraf, as a person, would’ve been an absolutely interesting person to write about even if he wasn’t a middle-aged man living on the pavement, but was a middle-class man sitting in a residential colony in Delhi.


SS: Yes. Yes. I found myself envying him and rather admiring him, rereading the book the other day. There’s a way in which he’s rather aristocratic; there’s a kind of aristocracy of the imagination about him. And partly through language, partly through the way that he looks, partly through the way that you’ve rendered him. He’s not an object of pity.


AS: Ashraf has this line where he is basically saying, “Why should I destroy my …” It’s hard to translate, this one. But I think the idea is, “Why destroy freedom by holding a grudge?” That’s how he lives his life. He’s very cognizant that actions have consequences, but he makes that choice, right? I don’t think Ashraf has 100% control over his fate, but Ashraf refuses to be a victim of his fate. And when someone does that, I mean, you can disagree with them, but I don’t think you can pity them.


SS: Did you have a clear sense when you started of the kind of book you did not want to write?


AS: Yes, I did. The kind of book I did not want to write was the kind of book which is focused on the horror of poverty, the kind of book that would have introduced Ashraf as the victim, the kind of book that presents poverty as a kind of trap, which people have no way of getting out of. The failure could be the state, or the failure could be the market, or the failure could be the banking system, or the failure could be that city. And always this sense of pity for people—the working class, the victims. That’s the kind of book I didn’t want to write. The book I didn’t want to write was The People of the Abyss
by Jack London. You know? London cannot look beyond the poverty of the people he’s talking to. I think London is appalled when he’s talking about the people in the abyss. I couldn’t square the people he talked about with the people I met. That’s the book I didn’t want to write.


SS: The question of fate, the invocation of a sort of fate or destiny. There’s none of that in the book, or very little.


AS: Because I hadn’t seen it, to be honest. In my time reporting on urban poverty and then rural poverty, I’ve yet to find people who are waiting for a kind of divine intervention, and of course people have very different aspirations.


SS: The people in your book are not dwelling on destiny or fate; they’re busy, maybe in small, maybe in microscopic ways. I was struck by your interest in time, and how many of the people that you spoke to did not want to dwell on the past, but were constantly preoccupied with the future. There was also the question of the way they divided the day, in relation to work, in relation to drinking, in relation to other things. There was a very meticulous and consistent engagement with time.


AS: I’m a journalist, which means I’m interested in how people spend their day, and that was the kind of book I’d be happy to write. One of the big things that all of us do is try and organize a day. I’ll often ask my friends, “What do you see in your office? You get there at 8:30, 9, or whenever, then? Check Facebook? Or you Gchat?” I could never get a satisfactory answer out of them, because I knew that a large part of their day could never really be accounted for. You know, you do a couple of interviews, you spend some time between interviews, you answer email, which is now a huge amount of your day, is now unfortunately how you produce work.

My grandfather, who’s now 91, is a guy who did an incredible amount of work with his hands, constantly fixing things and building things and rearranging things and connecting wires. So I was really interested in manual work and craftsmanship and working out what a daily routine sounds like. I feel that if you can really figure out how people spend the hours of their day, then you’re really getting somewhere. You’re getting somewhere very close.

On the streets outside of Calcutta. Flickr / twocentsworth

On the streets outside of Calcutta. Flickr / twocentsworth

SS: Yes. That takes me to something that’s almost at the end of the book, where you include a kind of chronology, or a timeline, of Ashraf. It’s very formally placed as a kind of chapter. Why did you do that? Because one could argue that the blurriness of his biography is itself a kind of truth, and did it need to be counted by, as it were, the literal truth.


AS: I’m really conflicted about that timeline. No one asked me to put it in; I put it in myself. It is something that I’ve been thinking about a lot, about whether I should have put it in or not. Initially the book ended on the timeline, in one of the drafts. And then my friend told me that it was an act of violence, to have that control over Ashraf’s narrative. I hadn’t seen it like that when I put it in there, but when I read it from a distance, it appeared to be like that. I have no good idea why I put it in there. It’s just one of those big questions. Reporters have to put in everything that they record and you sort of see, then, this information we think to be sort of absolute, and it has value only because of the fact that we’ve accepted it. I think we do it subconsciously.


SS: I can imagine a film of the book. It’s not exactly Little and Large, but you make a very amusing double act. The book is very funny. It wasn’t something that you remotely shied away from, drawing on and portraying the lives, the worlds, the personalities you encountered through a comic lens.


AS: There was a point when Ashraf asked me how much I earned and then I realized the ludicrousness of the situation. And I thought that it was a very intrusive project, when it came to the life of Ashraf, and it was only fair that I share what bits of my life intersect. And I just thought that that would … I didn’t want to completely out myself. I did manage to kind of put it out there, and make it clear to the reader that a lot of questions that they’re dealing with, I’m dealing with them too. You’ve got to also write about yourself. But at the same time, I didn’t want to make it a book about myself and my feelings, because I thought those were the least interesting parts of the story.


SS: Now that you’ve been traveling and talking to people around the world, to live audiences, reporters and the like, how has your relationship to Ashraf changed? Do you feel any obligation to him? Do you feel you’re an ambassador for him? Who has he become since you’ve published the book?


AS: You know that Ashraf’s dead, right? He died around the time that we were correcting the galleys. I tried to contact him and I couldn’t. I went to Calcutta and found that he had died. So I guess I am, in some ways, an ambassador for Ashraf. One of the things that I want to do when I get back to India is to try and find his children, though I have absolutely no idea how I’ll do it. But it’s a strange, strange situation, because in some ways, if Ashraf were alive, it would’ve been easier. We would’ve had a chat and then had a kind of honest conversation of “Okay, you know, this is how much money the book has made me, and, you know, let’s figure it out.” But now, I’m not sure how to figure this out in some way.


SS: Yeah. Do you miss him?


AS: I miss him a great deal. After he died, I thought of writing a long piece. Ashraf and I—I mean, we’d kind of stretched on for five years. When my friend told me he had died, I reached into my bag, and I started saying, “When did he die? How did he die?” And then my friend said, “Are you working on the last chapter of your book?” I was just gutted. I was absolutely gutted. “No.” And then I found myself thinking about whether this is a feeling that maybe I could engage with words. Which I didn’t think was true. It’s a strange moral place to inhabit.


SS: Do you miss the Delhi that he inhabited and whose spaces you shared?


AS: I do. I go back every now and then—and I realized that it’s never going to be the same. Primarily because the people who actually treated me like a person are now gone. I had a period where I was sort of an insider-outsider, where I would show up and just kind of slip into the streets. But that space is gone, because all of us who made that space are gone. icon

Featured image: Flickr / Bernard Oh