01 September 2009

Arzee - The Dwarf

Author: Chandrahas Choudhury
Pages: 184
Publishers: Harper CollinsPublished year: 2009
Price: 325

The title of the book intrigues you at a certain level. But then you wonder if you're going to find enough in the story to empathise with the life of a dwarf man.

But within the very first page of the book itself it is evident that Arzee - the dwarf is also a metaphor for the feeling of smallness and inadequacy that resides in all of us.

"He'd been too predictable earlier, too submissive, a soft touch. Each day in the world was a battle against the might and will of myraid forces, so then why shouldn't he change tracks and direction as it suited him? A man couldn't just be as he was, as he felt he should be - this world wasn't a place for feeling!"

This is Arzee's internal monologue, as he puts up a daily struggle to dignify his existence. His small, diminutive body is a perennial cause of resentment to him and the only way he imagines he can feel better is by having as normal a life as possible - a job and an adoring wife to sleep beside him.

When the novel starts, Arzee is in an elated state of mind. The head projectionist at the Noor cinema, Phiroze has called it a day, so Arzee quickly assumes that the post will now come to him. Not being used to such windfalls, he cannot contain his happiness and starts dreaming of a hiked salary and a quick marriage possibly. He even boasts of it to his friends and pities their stagnant lives.

But as it turns out, Arzee is informed that the old theatre so far sustaining on re-runs would be shut down in a few days. To make matters worse, he’s also supposed to cough up some ten thousand rupees to a group of cricket bookies. Since he sneaked away without paying the full amount when he lost, the agency sets Deepak on him - a scamp - who unleashes mild terror on Arzee from time to time. Deepak is probably one the novel's most entertaining characters. On the surface, he is a bully, trying hard to show how macho he is. His views are mostly shallow, which he spouts with a great dismissive, supercilious air. And yet, there is enough charm in his character and a suggestion that he may not be altogether a bad person. This becomes clear when you see him later behaving every bit like a home bird around his home and wife.

"I....I has it last week, Deepkbhai. I would've gone to the office and paid up, but you'd said I was to pay up to you as soon as I had the money.'
'I never knew you were so obedient. Okay, we'll excuse you for that. I've come now. Where is it?'

Interestingly, the novel alludes to the power dynamics among people, where people behave according to their stations in life. While Arzee is all meek and deferential towards Deepak, he treats his subordinates at Noor in the most shabby and inconsiderate manner. The suggestion is that the one with power will always trample over the less fortunate, so you know that it is really a cycle of which Arzee is only a part of. Again, the closing down of Noor - once a flourishing theatre and now pushed to the fringes of Mumbai - is a symbol of this strong versus weak conflict.

Chandrahas Chaudhury's debut novel is a wrenching affirmation of the pain and tribulation that the modern man endures….the deception of the mind and the power and perils of imagination. The author - himself a reviewer for Mint magazine - heartbreakingly captures the mind of this being - where each one lives in his/her imaginations to shield himself/herself from the cruel blows of reality. One is disoriented when one is forced to confront the real world and finds oneself at the brink of disaster and desperation. But some hope comes by and the imagination takes flight once again.

Arzee- The Dwarf is a powerful book about our confused lives today, and how we unknot its maze going through a series of highs and lows. Chandrahas' language is fluent, devoid of any frill. It is unwaveringly direct and searingly honesty. It’s easy to note that the author has a great penchant for similes which he uses to good effect. To sum up, Arzee- The Dwarf is a wonderful debut that will hopefully be much talked about in the days to come.

Interview with
Chandrahas Choudhury
1. For a while now, you've been a reviewer with several leading publications. How did that experience impact your learning as a novelist? What were the aspects of writing that you picked up in the course of reviewing? Typically dos and don't..

I don’t think of reviewing as a very unusual activity. You might say that all writers take notes in the books that they read; the only difference with me is that I write them up into an essay. But of course, my reviewing has been of great use to my education, especially since the papers I write for are very generous and allow me, for the most part, to write about what I want. So I try and read the books that I think I will enjoy and learn something from. Reviewing also keeps the mind sharp, as you’re always thinking about what works for a book and what doesn’t. It gives you the opportunity of a close engagement with the craft and technique of some of the best writers working in the world today. And often the life of a writer has many empty hours, and all these can’t be spent in composition – it would be too exhausting. Reading and reviewing are the glue that binds all the things in my life together. Lastly, I don't have to tell your audience about the many pleasures of getting lovely books for free, and before anyone else has had a chance to look at them!

2. Arzee – in spite of his peculiarity - a dwarf man – can actually be anyone and that is clear within the first page of the book itself. The way I read it, his diminutive body is a metaphor for the feeling of 'smallness' in all of us. So why the emphasis on Arzee being a dwarf in the title? Was it only to evoke curiosity?
I tried to make the predicament of Arzee both specific and universal – or, to extend from your own question, both particular and metaphorical. I tried to instantly give the reader access to Arzee’s mind, so that he or she can see the world from Arzee’s point of view. The use of the word “dwarf” in the title has a specific reason. It’s because the world itself sees Arzee as “Arzee the dwarf”. In a way his dwarfhood is like his surname, and always follows his name wherever he goes. Arzee can never be separated from his bodily condition when it comes to the gaze of society, and so “Arzee the dwarf” is in a way a description of his problem with the world. Even if Arzee tries to forget his condition, the world – for example the figures of Deepak and Mehndi in the book – and always reminding him of it.

3. To me, the most interesting character of the novel was Deepak. You portray him as supercilious and cheeky and yet he's not entirely inhuman as we get to know him. On one level I gather, he is part of the cycle of power dynamics that exists between human beings ie Arzee is deferential towards Deepak but treats his subordinates at Noor shabbily. What other factors link Deepak to the story? Also, am curious to know how you view this character yourself.
You’re quite right in your reading. Deepak also presides over one of the comic strands of the story, as he’s always cutting off Arzee’s thoughts and trying to mock Arzee’s self-pity. Arzee reveals quite a lot of himself in his long conversations with Deepak, and this is useful to the reader. Deepak is indeed part of a whole chain of power dynamics – he is always condescending when speaking with Arzee, but he is very deferential to his bosses. At the same time, Arzee is so lonely that he comes to think of Deepak as a kind of friend, despite Deepak’s sarcasm. Finally, in the scene at Deepak’s house we see that Deepak himself is vulnerable to grief and hurt, which one would not suspect from his tough-guy exterior. So Deepak fulfils many functions in the story. I think one of the qualities of a good novelist is how much attention you pay to your minor characters.

4. Is Phiroz's daughter's blindness a reminder to the Arzees of the world that people live pleasantly enough with bigger handicaps or is there more to it?

There’s more to it. The scene is also about the human need for contact, and indeed our ability to establish a permanent human connection through an encounter no more than ten or fifteen minutes long. The fact that Shireen never appears before Arzee only adds to the mystery of the scene. And Shireen’s blindness also goes a long way towards explaining why Phiroz behaves the way he does.

5. Would like to know your literary preferences and the authors who have inspired you.

These are a few of my favourite fiction writers: Bibhutibhushan Bandhopadhyay, Fakir Mohan Senapati, Vikram Chandra, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Dickens, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Sankar, Orhan Pamuk, Yiyun Li, Naguib Mahfouz, Alaa Al Aswany. But I read a lot across fiction, poetry, history, politics, religion, and philosophy – broadly all the humanities.

6. Your debut effort has come in for much praise. What's coming up next?

An anthology of Indian short stories about place and landscape, called India: A Traveller’s Literary Companion, which is edited by me. That’s coming out next year. And after that another novel on which I’m going to start work soon. There may even be a book of poems.

7. Also if you can briefly comment on the direction Indian Writing In English is taking and the trends you foresee?

I think that Indian writing in English today is in a good place. As a reviewer I read something almost every month that seems to me to be high-quality work. I think the current generation of writers in English have shed a lot of the hang-ups and anxieties that haunted the work of an earlier generation. We’re more confident about our voice and more willing to find our own forms. At the same time, I also read a lot of really shallow, linguistically inert fiction that seems to have been written to a formula, and my days are ruined by these wretched books. In a capitalistic age a lot of novels seem to want to be nothing more than be easily consumable products. So I’d say there’s both good news and bad news to report.


Qalandar said...

Thanks for the shout sandy...I hadn't heard of this, and it certainly sounds different from the usual novel-in-english by a first time Indian writer. I recently got through Aminuddin Khan's "A Shift in the Wind", and while its prose is elegant, it is quite a decidedly minor work...

sandhya said...

Q: You should read this book if you get hold of it. What is A Shift in the Wind about? You did a review?

Gouri Dange said...

I like your questions, and he's replied with sincerity and in a dimensional way. i loved his book. will look out for more from him. thanks sandhya