01 July 2011
In Delhi, a working man can spend a lifetime searching for the ideal job with the perfect balance of kamai and azadi—where he is both fortunate and free.
R IRANI FOR THE CARAVAN
In Delhi, a working man can spend a lifetime searching for the ideal job with the perfect balance of kamai and azadi—where he is both fortunate and free.
R IRANI FOR THE CARAVAN

"I AM 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, gotten all my quotes, and arrived early one morning to meet some construction workers, hoping to 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.

Aman Sethi covers the Maoist insurgency for The Hindu. His first book, A Free Man, is publishing this month from Random House.

Keywords: Delhi labourers construction Aman Sethi book excerpt
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