Thomas Larson reviews A Free Man in Delhi: A True Story of Life and Death in Delhi:
If you’re one of the unorganized working poor who inhabit the grimmest parts of Delhi, India, you’re probably a mazdoor, or laborer — late teens or early twenties, male, unskilled. To earn your rupees, you carry bags of cement at building sites, whitewash a staircase, paint a house. If you make enough in one week, you take the next week off. Then, you can eat, drink, and smoke the money away, in part, because there’s not much of it and because the jobs are plentiful; you just have to show up every day by the side of the road at six in the morning. You might work one season, lay off for another, ride the trains or catch a bus for another menial job elsewhere. You’ve been known to leave (abandon, some might say) a needy family, a nagging wife, a brood of children you’ve grown tired of. You might also blow off your birth family, live anonymously in Delhi’s (or Calcutta’s or Mumbai’s) frenzied quarters where no one knows (or cares) whence you came.
As a mazdoor, you have no skills like carpentry, plumbing, cooking; those involve an apprenticeship, a master teacher, tools. You need some training to be a rickshaw puller, house porter, or cigarette seller, but more a talent for staying in one place and following orders. But that’s a headache a mazdoor doesn’t need. It’s much easier if you show up, stoop and load and carry and dump, collect the cash, hang out drunk or stoned on the street, sleep where you finish off a bottle. Your other name is lafunter: a lay-about, a slug. So what if passersby regard you as such. That’s what you’re doing, maybe half the time. You may not get paid right away because the boss juggles credit as he goes. End of the month, perhaps. At least you’re not indentured like bonded laborers or seasonal workers who pay to be organized. You can always borrow a rupee from a pal or a shopkeeper for a chai. Despite the average 88-degree heat in Delhi, India’s capital city of 22 million, you live outdoors. You just unfurl your bedroll and use a bag, stuffed with your jacket, for a pillow. You’re no slum dweller: they have shanties, a board bed, a cardboard roof. No, you’re a pavement dweller.