In Lectures on Literature, Vladimir Nabokov asserts that novels are fairy tales. Elizabeth Hardwick qualifies this statement, saying "Of course, with Nabokov a thing is asserted to counter a repellent philistine opposition. A novel becomes a fairy tale so that it will not be thought to be a sociological study…", an idea that seems to run "like a low fever among the student body". In Aman Sethi’s first novel A Free Man, the low fever becomes a delirium.
It tells the story of Ashraf, an itinerant labourer who lives in Delhi's Sadar Bazaar. Ashraf is poor and homeless; his story could be the story of anyone who belongs to the Indian working class, the invisible Indian.
The prose style Sethi deploys throughout the novel can only be called High Stardust: "I want to understand the mazdoor ki zindagi". Sethi is a journalist and so is the narrator of this novel (also called Aman). In several passages, the narrator seems to be distancing himself from his working class hero, taking pains to reassure his middle class reader that he is an honest guy with good habits, not one of "them". When offered a joint, Aman says: "I really should not take a hit of this". When Ashraf is glugging down his alcohol and giving the journo good copy, Aman makes it clear that all this while, "I was nursing a small drink". The noble savages of Sadar, those beautiful innocent man-made criminals, fascinate Aman: "As a law-abiding denizen of South Delhi, I am instantly and constantly impressed by the illegality of the North".
There's plenty of information and statistics in A Free Man. You'll get to learn a lot about rearing pigs and goats, the process by which sugarcane juice is converted into sugar, how boxes are unloaded at Delhi railway station, the exact number of houses that were demolished during a drive in 2004: 150,000. What you won't get is a story.
For Sethi belongs to the school of writing which believes that the modern novel is less about 'mere' storytelling, and more about correcting injustice in society. The novelist might be a storyteller, but he is also an NGO activist. A Free Man is, in effect, nuggets of information punctuated with insipid humour, in others words, what in the world of television goes under the moniker 'infotainment'.
Granted that the poor have been ground to dust in India's march to capitalist heaven, that the stories of those on the margins need to be told. And Sethi might even be the right man for the job. But why burden the novel with this responsibility? WH Auden, in a Paris Review interview, once said: "I have come to realise that, in cases of social or political injustice, only two things are effective: political action and straight journalistic reportage of the facts. The arts can do nothing."
China, like India, faces similar issues of lopsided development. Recently, Liao Yiwu managed to give the slip to Chinese authorities, arriving safely in Berlin. Liao is best known for The Corpse Walker, a series of interviews with people living on the margins of Chinese society that his government thought propagated a negative view of China. A Free Man too is about a labourer on the periphery of Indian society. It could have been a book of interviews or reportage and been all the more powerful for it. Instead, the novel is about a journalist interviewing poor workmen so that he can write a book about poor workmen. Sethi's heart is in the right place but his muddle-headedness eventually does his 'story' in.
Palash Krishna Mehrotra's new book The Butterfly Generation will be published next month.