Saturday, September 12, 2009

On Chandrahas Choudhury's Arzee The Dwarf

Arzee, the endearing protagonist of Chandrahas Choudhury’s first novel, is twenty seven years old and lives in Bombay. He is a small: at three and half feet he is cursed to “smell the shit and dung on the streets and make talk with all the asses and crotches in the world”. But he can do nothing about it. Instead, he can only look ahead and the make the best of what he has. And there is something to look forward to. Soon, Arzee will be the head projectionist at Noor Cinema, a decaying theater in the old style that shows reruns of Hindi movies.

The promotion now means more money – five thousand more rupees. Arzee can now think of getting married, though the painful memory of an abruptly broken relationship still haunts him. All that is in the past, he reassures himself; a bright future now awaits him.

Arzee’s anticipation infects the early pages of the novel, but it is short-lived. The promotion will not materialize because Noor Cinema is closing. Arzee is devastated: his job at the Noor had anchored him in life. He had loved film projection ever since he had first visited the theater with his mother when only thirteen. He loved the large, black projector, Babur (a distortion of the original German name, Bauer), which “for thirty years had been standing in the same place in the same room, breathing out four shows a day”. But no more! It was as if the sun itself was blowing out, ending all life on earth.

For the next hundred pages, we accompany a disoriented Arzee as he drifts around Bombay, searching for new direction. The novel's third person narration remains faithful to the protagonist. Even the punctuation matches well: Choudhury uses exclamations liberally but they are there to convey Arzee’s childlike wonder and curiosity. And every thought, every description contributes to a complex, layered construction of Arzee’s inner world.

Arzee stands at the center of Arzee, but he is surrounded by a constellation of personalities. Only a few, though, play a major part. There is Deepak, a canny and very practical man, full of bluster and cynicism. But his toughness is only a facade; Deepak is quite capable of warmth and empathy. He hounds Arzee regarding a debt, but has an ear for Arzee’s travails even though he pretends not to care. There is Arzee’s mother, whose “soft tyranny” is felt throughout the book; there’s Monique, whose romance with Arzee unfolds beautifully -- before the abrupt end. And, to a lesser extent, there is Phiroz, the old Parsi head projectionist, who is preoccupied with his daughter Shireen’s wedding.

Shireen is in fact one of novel’s sparkling minor characters. Arzee’s conversation with her is one of the high points of the book --her vitality leaps through the pages. She makes such an impact that we fully expect her to reappear and play a bigger role – but that is not how the novel is structured. There are other, similarly striking one-scene characters.

No review of Arzee can be complete without a mention of its superb dialogues. Let’s a look at an exchange between Arzee and Deepak. Our little hero owes a debt to a syndicate, and Deepak, who works for the syndicate, has been set on the case. Arzee has been avoiding the bullying Deepak, but gets accosted one day. After they’ve settled on what should be done – Arzee is very much on the defensive – they get to bantering about movies. Deepak asks what’s playing at the Noor Cinema.
Saathi. It’s a film from the early nineties….It’s got Mohsin Khan, who used to be Pakistani cricketer of the eighties. Made a double hundred in England once. It’s a hummer.”

“Is it as good as Satya?” asked Deepak. “In my opinion there isn’t any Indian gangster movie as good as Satya.”

“Good choice, Deepakbhai! That’s the best gangster movie you can hope to see if you also want songs and dancing in it.”

“I’ll tell you what I like about the movie. The hero hardly says a word in whole three hours. Talking’s not his thing, action is. Even when he falls in love, he can’t bring himself to say much to his girl. That’s why she finds him sweet.”

“That’s just it, Deepakbhai. Excellent analysis!”

“There’s no need to lay on the butter. I just have a clear point of view, that’s all. I know what I like and what I don’t like.”

“That’s the way to be.”

“And speaking of Pakistanis,” said Deepak, “they shouldn’t be allowed to work in our films until they return what they’ve taken of Kashmir. Make as many double hundreds in England as you want! But don’t come here and steal roles off our heroes and screw our girls. Kashmir first! Then, we’ll see.”

“But what’s Kashmir got to do with all this Deepakbhai?”

“It’s all connected. You can’t put all these things in different boxes. If the Pakistanis are going to come over to this side and eat up our jobs, then let them bring some land over as well! No give, no take.”

“It’s a thought, Deepakbhai. I hadn’t looked at it that way before.”

“You will now. Everything in the world is connected. If something goes up, something else has to go down.”
The funniest parts of the book can be found in the Arzee-Deepak and Arzee-Shireen conversations. In the above excerpt, notice the way ‘Deepakbhai’ is used – it creates a cadence or rhythm that punctuates the exchange. And because free-flowing conversations allow for spontaneity, Arzee’s earnestness (and intelligence, though that's not so evident in the above) are brought sharply into focus.
Choudhury is a prolific Bombay-based literary critic and writer whose best essays are featured in the blog The Middle Stage. With Arzee he has shown he is just as adept at creating his own fictional world as he is at interpreting others'. The beautifully spare prose of the novel, the memorable characters sketched within a short space, the dialogues – all point to a writer well in control of his reins. There is much to look forward from this author.

Finally, here are two more excerpts that occur in different parts of the novel but share the same theme: our perception of the loved one. Dashrath Tiwari, a taxi-driver friend of Arzee – another one-scene character – says this during the course of a long conversation:
“What is love? The loved one is a person just like you and me, a person with a hundred faults and failings. But briefly he or she is transformed into someone utterly beautiful, perfect – a being from the heavens! Love is the true home of the imagination. Requited love – that is the paradise raised from nothing but a pair of synchronized imaginations.”
Much later in the book, Arzee catches a glimpse of himself and Monique in the mirror and thinks:
The mirror made it seem as if there were two of each of them, and this was true in a way, for (Arzee thought about this carefully) she was both the Monique that she was and the Monique he took her to be, and these two were similar but not the same, and he was both himself and the Arzee who belonged to her. And in the gaps and linkages between these real and reflected beings, all kinds of meanings and suggestions seemed to be lurking.
It requires some skill to put so neatly into words that which we know instinctively but are unable to express easily. Pick up Arzee and you'll find plenty such observations scattered throughout.


Alex Engwete said...

Thanks for presenting Chandrahas Choudhury's Arzee The Dwarf...

That part of the world can certainly produce great story tellers--chief among them, in my view, being Salman Rushdie. Even among Indian expats: look at V.S. Naipul!..

An American friend of mine who is a fiction-lover and who made me discover Vikram Seth and current Indian fiction once told me the best living writers in the English language are all from what she awkwardly called the "India before the 1947 partition."

And she lent me this incredible historical novel by a Pakistani woman set at the very time of partition she was talking about. Incredible novel--too bad I forgot both the title and the name of the author...

Talking of Salman Rushdie... A few months back, I was looking at paperbacks at Barnes & Noble when I saw this beautiful cover design of a novel (I must admit, to my shame, that at times I pick up fiction books that way)...

On the cover was this extract of Salman Rushdie's comment on the book: "This is a sparkling debut, a first novel of confidence, verve and talent, written with a wit, light touch and deep humanity which brings its world to vivid, memorable life."

It goes without saying that I bought the book on the spot. And I wasn't disappointed. After reading your presentation, I picked it up from the shelf to copy the above quotation; and I think I'm going to reread it. The novel is entitled No God In Sight by Altaf Tyrewala...

Hari said...

As always, it's great to read your observations. I am curious about your opinion of VS Naipaul. He's one of my favorite writers, but I found his A Bend in the River incredibly vain. Have you read it? He's also written non-fiction about the Congo; there too he is vain and proud, but at least his observations are sharp.

Alex Engwete said...

Funny you’d mention A Bend in the River while asking my opinion on V.S. Naipaul, as it’s through that book that I first discovered him in 1985. That year, I entered the short-story contest that was then annually organized by the French Cultural Center of my hometown of Kisangani, in Zaire (now, again, renamed Congo). I won the contest and was awarded money and a book entitled A la courbe du fleuve, which is the French translation of A Bend in the River. As this happened in early July and thus coincided with summer vacations (I was a high-school teacher), I used the money to take the boat to Kinshasa and to read V.S. Naipul on the very river in the title of his novel.
Now, the “bend in the river” of the title happens to be in my hometown, which is also the location of the outpost of Mr. Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Though spellbound by the quality of the prose and thrilled by the satire of the “Big Man” (Mobutu) in A Bend in the River, I experienced the same anger I had when I first read Conrad’s novel. The characters in the novel had nothing to do with the people around me, not certainly me for example; they randomly stemmed from the brains of someone who didn’t know the place or who lacked any form of empathy for the locals. And I deemed the author a “racist”!

Several years later, in 1998 to be more precise, after I had moved to the U.S., my “prejudice” and “prejudgment” of V.S. Naipul was confirmed when I read Paul Theroux’s take on the man he’d first met in Uganda, in a somehow disparaging review of a memoir Theroux had written (btw, have you ever read Paul Theroux’s travelogues? Before going to Fiji, I read his account of his travel by kayak around those islands, and it served me well when I arrived in Suva. And re-btw, you're aware of this, half of the population of Fiji is of Indian descent, without whom the Fijian economy would be non-existent). Fortunately I just found that negative book review on the net here.
But despite my negative opinion of V.S. Naipul, I like his prose and the way he crafts his stories… I’d read any of his fiction any time…

Hari said...

Alex -- What a story! Thanks much for sharing. I think you should write an essay on your 1985 experience. I'd be glad to feature it here.

I have read Theroux's book. And Patrick French's recent biography of VS Naipaul affirms what most people know: Naipaul is an obnoxious man. But there is no denying that his prose is magical.

I like his travel writing the most -- especially some of his later travels to India and the Muslim world. His technique was special: He would meet dozens of people in each country and jot down their stories (which run into pages) by hand. Those stories, unchanged, made it into his books. The arrogance is still there, but there's a lot more of the "observer" Naipaul.

Jamespati said...

Nice post! very interesting topic. keep on posting.

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Pessimist Fool said...

@ Alex - is that novel by a pakistani woman "Burnn Shadows" by Kamila Shamsie