Where the Sidewalk Ends
The uncertain life of a poor man in Delhi
A Free Man:
A True Story of Life and Death in Delhi
by Aman Sethi
$24.95 List Price
Taken out of context, Mohandas Gandhi's famous remark of 1921, that "India lives in her villages," lends itself to multiple interpretations. Gandhi might have meant, as indeed he believed, that the country's bedrock spirit and the traditions to serve it best resided in its rural heartland. He might have referred to pure demographics; at the time, nearly 90 percent of India's populace of 251 million was rural. He might also have wished to note, by way of political strategy, that an independent India would emerge only if the nationalist movement escaped from the cities and ventured into the villages, kindling the desire for self-rule all across the country.
But when Gandhi did write that sentence in an essay—or, to be precise, when he wrote "India lives in her seven and a half lakhs of villages," using an old Indian measure for 750,000—he was livid. His country's educated classes seemed unprepared to accept Gandhi's championing of the charkha, the rustic spinning wheel, as a symbol of the independence movement, and he believed that this resistance signaled a contempt for rusticity itself. In the essay, which began in praise of the poet Rabindranath Tagore, Gandhi quickly diverted himself into an excoriation of India's neglect of her villages. He dismissed "city people" as "brokers and commission agents for the big houses of Europe, America, and Japan," accusing them of living off the rural areas and bleeding India dry. The biggest problem facing India's villages—poverty—was also the biggest problem facing all of India, Gandhi argued. "It is my belief based on experience