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.”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.
“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.”
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.