Image courtesy Sarah Naqvi

J.P. Singh Pagal is a man who tells Delhi stories better than most. He is short, slender, and hyperactive, with enormous eyes that constantly goggle, as if he were seeing the world for the first time.

J.P. appeared one day at Bara Tooti, weaving through the crowd of exhausted mazdoors, pulling furiously on his chillum, exhaling plumes of bittersweet marijuana, interrupting conversations, pushing, shoving, joking, bitching, shouting, and laughing his curious ascending laugh.

Tales of unexplained disappearances, stories of amazing good fortune, whispers of a strange dark creature that prowls the eastern borders of the city—J.P. Singh knew them all and had seen them all. “Watch out, it’s the half-man-half-machine-half-monkey-fully-dangerous Monkeyman. I was there, beedu. I saw him, and I screamed! Just like the lady who dropped her pallu in fright. Just like the man who killed his sister and threw her body in the gutter. I saw them all. Haha, HaHa, HAHA!”

“And what’s this? A recorder? Gathering evidence?”

“No, no, I’m just a reporter.”

“You say you are a reporter. I say you are a policeman. Haha, HaHa, HAHA!”

Nonetheless, he sat down beside me and reduced my cunning interview technique to shambles.

Aman: So, Ravi bhai, would you say that building a house is more art than a craft?

Ravi: Er…

J.P. Singh: Tell us, Ravi, you son of a randi. Is it an art or a craft? What are your views on quality versus quantity? Tell us, tell us, you chootiya. Did you know they found a condom in a Pepsi bottle? A used one! Haha. I put it there. And the fire in Meerut? I was carrying the matches. The woman whose clothes fell off in the Fashion Week, the bomb that went off, the film with Dino Morea and that londiya—I always forget her name…

A: You made it?

J.P.: (in all seriousness) I made it.

My recordings from that day are littered with J.P.’s comments on me, my work, and everyone I met. He followed me around for hours, as I walked the chowk asking undeniably boring questions. For instance, this clip on how to build a house:

A: How do you pass time while building a house?

Mazdoor: We work.

A: But you think of things while you work?

Mazdoor: Everyone does.

A: What do you think of?

Mazdoor: I think of work when I work.

J.P., in the meantime, provided background chatter, humming around my ears like an irate wasp. As I sought new insights into the condition of labor, he distracted my subjects by passing on news (“Dino Morea’s new movie is called Raaz. It’s a hit!”) handing out insults (“Arre chootiya, answer the question”), and spreading paranoia (“You see those security cameras over there? There, you chootiya, up there. It’s recording your every move. It has a microphone that tapes what you say. You see that small shop behind it? That’s where the riot police lie resting. A word from the control room and they will burst out with sticks and guns to hit you and shoot you and beat you into pulp”).

Elsewhere, when I asked a man about his favorite building:

J.P.: You know of the Taj Mahal?

Mazdoor: Yes.

J.P.: Did you know Shah Jahan cut off the hands of everyone who worked on it?

M: No.

J.P.: Do you know if it still happens around here?

M: No…

J.P.: Trust me, it happens.

When I finally gave up, we sat down for a smoke: me with my cigarettes—no more beedis; after a year in Bara Tooti, I realized being one of the boys is an experiment fraught with peril—and he with his chillum. Time passed. I smoked my cigarette down to the filter and lit another. I felt I should ask J.P. a few questions—he would be great for the book—but I couldn’t bring myself to. But what if I never saw him again? Suddenly I was exhausted.

When I asked him about the photograph, he snatched it from my hand. “The world changed, and so did we,” he sang mournfully and slipped away into the evening’s gathering darkness. J.P. was right; the world was changing, an imperceptible hysteria was pulsing through the city.

J.P. Singh leaned over and handed me a photograph. Shot in a studio, it captured a young, dashing J.P., astride a stationary motorcycle, arranged against a painted backdrop that seemed to be whizzing past. He looked happy; a shapely feminine hand rested on his shoulder. From the angle of the handle, I deduced she must be sitting sideways, ladies-style, also facing the camera. I deduced, as the photograph had been neatly torn in two, excising J.P.’s companion (and the rear wheel of the bike) from the frame. When I asked him about the photograph, he snatched it from my hand. “The world changed, and so did we,” he sang mournfully and slipped away into the evening’s gathering darkness.

J.P. was right: the world was changing; an imperceptible hysteria was pulsing through the city. For as long as I can remember, Delhi looked like a giant construction site inhabited by bulldozers, cranes, and massive columns of prefabricated concrete; but the rubble has masked the incredible changes and dislocations of factories, homes, and livelihoods that occurred as Delhi changed from a sleepy north Indian city into a glistening metropolis of a rising Asian superpower. Working-class settlements like Yamuna Pushta, Nangla Machi, and Sanjay Amar Colony were flattened by government demolition squads to make way for broader roads, bigger power stations, and the Commonwealth Games.


Before he settled down on a footpath in Bara Tooti, Mohammad Ashraf lived in Sanjay Amar Colony, a settlement on the western bank of the Yamuna River:

When I arrived in Delhi, I did all kinds of work—I worked in a meat shop, I traveled to Punjab with a construction crew, I did mazdoori at Bara Tooti. I did anything I could find and slept wherever I found space. Then one day I found work with a Masterji who stitched sports sets. Some company gave him pre-cut pieces of cloth, which we stitched into shorts and vests. It was a big company that outsourced its stitching to hundreds of workers across Delhi and exported the finished products to Dubai. Every month a company representative would come to Masterji’s tiny two-room house-cum-workshop, pick up the stitched garments, and drop off fresh supplies for the coming month. There were just two of us with our sewing machines, Masterji and I. For two, maybe three years, we lived together, ate together, and worked together. The work was easy. My clothes were always neat, clean, and well tailored. It was great.

Then in 2004 a bulldozer drove up to Sanjay Amar Colony and razed it to the ground.

“We had heard of demolition drives across the city, but we never thought it would happen to us,” Ashraf says. In the first drive, more than one hundred and fifty thousand homes were demolished. Eventually, about three hundred and fifty thousand houses would be leveled as part of a beautification drive launched by a cabal of government agencies.

“The demolition ruined Masterji. He didn’t have a title for his land and so never got any compensation. Two days after the demolition, he packed his bags and went back to Bengal. I gathered my clothes and came to Bara Tooti.”

“Was this the first time you came to Bara Tooti?”

“No, no. I had lived here intermittently for many years before I started work with Masterji. When he left, I moved here full time.”

Ashraf says that, despite its name, Sanjay Amar Colony was a largely Muslim settlement. “That’s why it was one of the first to go. That year, 2004, was an election year, and the BJP was in power. They knew that the basti would vote for the Congress, so they thought, ‘Let’s demolish the Muslim areas first.’”

The violent displacement of eight hundred thousand slum dwellers received surprisingly little attention in the national press, which described the process as a necessary and painful part of urban renewal. But occasionally the working-class city would force its way into the daily news in bizarre and mysterious ways.

It didn’t work; the Congress still came to power, but for Ashraf and thousands like him it was little consolation.

“The BJP just lost the elections. We lost our lives.”

The violent displacement of eight hundred thousand slum dwellers received surprisingly little attention in the national press, which described the process as a necessary and painful part of urban renewal. But occasionally the working-class city would force its way into the daily news in bizarre and mysterious ways. From 2000 onwards, there was a series of unlikely incidents—the appearance of fantastic creatures, the rise of serial killers like West Delhi’s Hammerman, and a mysterious masked motorcyclist who dressed in black and prowled Delhi’s streets by night—all of which could have been made up by J.P. Singh Pagal but were reported in national dailies.

In the summer of 2001, for instance, an elusive creature was spotted in working-class dwellings in Ghaziabad and East Delhi’s adjoining districts. Descriptions varied between a primitive four-foot-tall humanoid, and a futuristic, if somewhat hirsute, robot from outer space. When public hysteria reached fever pitch, the Delhi Police commissioned a study on the phenomenon, hoping that a report categorically denying the existence of the creature would put an end to the phenomenon.

If the testimonies of fifty-five witnesses, interviewed by the Institute of Human Behavior and Allied Sciences, are compiled, the Monkeyman was a creature between four and eight feet tall with long iron legs, shod in sleek black sneakers with springs attached to the soles.

On closer examination, he was observed to have long hair, a terrible face, which he sometimes masked, and gleaming lasers for eyes. He struck mostly at night—though one witness claimed to have been attacked at 10:15 a.m.—and could be identified by his distinctive call of ohu-ohu, she-she, or ho-ho, depending on the witness interviewed. Apart from his ability to jump great distances, the Monkeyman sometimes flew with the help of a black belt, a red-and-black striped suit, and a light affixed to his chest. “He was like Shaktimaan,” noted an excitable young woman, before she swooned and fainted into the arms of a troubled behavioral scientist.

I met Dr. Nimesh Desai, the lead author of the study on the Monkeyman, over a cup of coffee in the genteel setting of the India International Center on Max Mueller Marg. My purpose was to understand what such stories told us about the city we lived in. Dr. Desai stroked his beard and offered me a biscuit. “The problem with the Monkeyman issue was that, in at least one case, someone had been attacked by a real monkey.”

But the other cases were more interesting. Almost everyone interviewed by Dr. Desai had claimed to have tried to grab the creature. “So the scratch marks should have been on the ventral aspect of the forearm”—for any creature caught and clawing to get away would leave long gashes on the inner part of the forearm. However, “all scratches were along the dorsal aspect, that is, the outer part of the forearm, suggesting,” Dr. Desai leaned over the elegant teapot, “that the injuries were self-inflicted!”

Dr. Desai stressed that this was only a preliminary hypothesis, but he surmised that most of the victims were going through considerable amounts of stress at the time. Some had known histories of substance abuse, some were worried by the threat of eviction or demolition of their houses, some had absent husbands and ill family members, and many were characterized by researchers as being severely sleep deprived and having histrionic personas, or tendencies to be excessively emotional and attention hungry.

When the news of the creature broke, it was possible that the victims had attributed to the Monkeyman injuries that they had unknowingly inflicted on themselves in their sleep.

“It could be mass hysteria caused by mass media,” he concluded.

Dr. Desai’s report lay on my desk for many days: a snapshot of a city splintering under the strain of a fundamental urban reconfiguration—a city of the exhausted, distressed, and restless, struggling with the uncertainties of eviction and unemployment; a city of twenty million histrionic personas resiliently absorbing the day’s glancing blows only to return home and tenderly claw themselves to sleep.


By ferreting out the absurd, the unlikely, and the almost true, J.P. Singh Pagal served as the medium for Delhi’s dislocation and unease. His stories seemed informed by the newspapers, street gossip, and his unique perspective that was in turn framed by a deep-seated paranoia directed against the government and police. In the course of their work, the mazdoors of Bara Tooti traveled across the city, picking up snippets of information that they used to measure the temperature of the city. “Mahaul garam hai, the situation is hot,” said a mazdoor once when I asked him about the mood in a slum settlement that had just been demolished by the Delhi Municipal Corporation.

J.P. Singh tapped into this network of mazdoor information and passed on the news as he traveled from chowk to chowk in the markets of the old city. With J.P., as with any tabloid, it was enough to know that something had happened in a certain part of Delhi. The specifics of the incident could always be sought from a more reliable source.

Sadly, I never met J.P. Singh again, but everyone in Bara Tooti had a J.P. Singh story. “He’s a thief!” proclaimed Rehaan with uncharacteristic vehemence. “He’s the man who steals chappals in the night.”

“Have you ever caught him, Rehaan?”

“No, obviously not. He’s so good at it that no one has ever caught him.”

“So how do you know it’s him?”

“I just know.”

Lalloo had an amazing story about him. “J.P. Singh was not always like this,” he said. “Once upon a time he was a very big man—in Bollywood. He used to roam around with all the actors and actresses, and he used to drink English whiskey.”

“We still see him around occasionally. But every time he comes something goes missing. It is difficult, no, Aman bhai? If a man loses everything in one go, what option does he have but to go mad? At least we only lose things in stages.”

J.P. used to work in the Sadar Bazaar office of a major Bombay film producer where his primary job was to make sure the office stayed neat and clean in case someone ever visited. “But no one visited,” according to Lalloo. “So all he did was sit in the office and get drunk. Sometimes when he was bored of drinking alone he would come down to Bara Tooti and drink with us. Sometimes if he got too drunk he would pass out here on the pavement amongst us.”

Then one day the film producer finally did visit, but J.P. wasn’t there. “He was fast asleep in the galli behind Kaka’s shop, drunk out of his mind. The producer was very angry, but because J.P. was basically a good man the producer took him along to Bombay.”

In Bombay, J.P. worked as a handyman on Bollywood sets. “Whenever he was back in Delhi, he used to drop in. After a few drinks, he would boast about meeting this actress and putting makeup on that actress’s face—Aishwarya Rai, Sushmita Sen, Karishma, everyone. But once when he was very drunk he burst into tears and confessed.”

It was true that J.P. was working in Bollywood, but his job was to supervise the daily-wage workers who built the sets, mark their attendance, and pay them their seventy-five rupees at the end of each day. “He was working in Bollywood, but he wasn’t meeting any actresses. He spent his day among chootiyas like us.” Lalloo couldn’t help the broad smile that spread across his face. “Aishwarya, Sushmita, lowda mera. J.P. was a munshi at a construction site!”

A few months later, he returned to Bara Tooti. “By now he was beginning to look a little crazed. He had fallen out with his employer once and for all and told us he would never go back to Bombay.”

“So what did he do, Lalloo bhai?”

“I don’t know. Every time he came, he seemed a little more insane. Finally someone saw him sleeping behind a shop in Khari Baoli and we realized he was now living on the streets in Chandni Chowk.”

“We still see him around occasionally. But every time he comes something goes missing. It is difficult, no, Aman bhai? If a man loses everything in one go, what option does he have but to go mad? At least we only lose things in stages.”

No one really sees J.P. anymore, but every so often someone’s slippers go missing in the night, and they wake up and remember J.P. Singh Pagal, the half-mad teller of half-true tales.

Reprinted from A Free Man: A True Story of Life and Death in Delhi by Aman Sethi. Copyright © 2011 by Aman Sehti. First American edition 2012. With the permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Aman Sethi was born in Bombay in 1983 and attended the Columbia School of Journalism. He is a correspondent for The Hindu and the recipient of an International Committee of the Red Cross award for his reportage.

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