Review

A masterpiece in miniature

By Editor on July 3, 2009 7:12 pm

Arzee the Dwarf
By Chandrahas Choudhury \ New Delhi: Harper Collins \ 185 pages \ Rs 325

A poignant, compellingly rendered tale about a little man ajar with the world, Arzee the Dwarf is also a love letter to Bombay. Rohit Chopra reviews Chandrahas Choudhury’s brilliant debut novel.

arzee_the_dwarf.jpgA SPECTACULAR NOVEL about a small man locked in a permanent lover’s quarrel with the world, Chandrahas Choudhury’s Arzee the Dwarf reminds us why we read. It reminds us of the reasons that we as humans need to dwell in language. And it reminds us why writing that can claim the name of literature is both of its milieu and beyond it, illuminating the peculiar richness of a time and place and, in doing so, gently asking us to reconsider the self-image of that historical moment.

The novel ushers us, in media res, into the life of Arzee, who works as a projectionist at the Noor, a cinema that has seen better days. Convinced that the cosmos has dealt him an unfair hand—largely but not only because of his diminutive size—Arzee chafes at both his professional and personal situation. He lives with his brother, Mobin, and his mother, who he loves even as he feels hemmed in by her. Plagued by the memory of a lost love, he yearns for that intimacy and fulfillment that neither friends nor family can provide.

Arzee, however, is not quite ready to give up on life. He is willing to grant the universe the opportunity to redeem itself, which it tantalizingly offers to do. When we meet Arzee, he is on the verge of realizing a longstanding ambition. Phiroz K. Pir, the head projectionist of the Noor, is about to retire, and hand over control of the Babur, the great German projector of the cinema, to Arzee. In addition to earning Arzee respect from his friends and his mother, the promotion will also allow Arzee to pay off a gambling debt to Deepak, the ne’er-do-well who hounds him across the streets of Bombay to collect the money.

But the universe complicates things, as the universe is wont to do, and Arzee must contend with a few surprises, disappointments as well as delights, in the days that follow. Unfurling the course of events, Choudhury takes us on a captivating ride with Arzee that is funny and sad, ecstatic and glum, tender yet unsentimental. Travelling with Arzee across the streets and suburbs of Bombay—and within his head as he mulls on the meaning or meaninglessness of things—we arrive at the bittersweet end of the novel, which verges on hopeful possibility but withholds from us the easy satisfaction of certitude.

The novel throngs with a memorable cast of characters, drawn with great economy in prose that is controlled and evocative. We meet, with Arzee, several of his colleagues, from the spectral Abjani to the canny Phiroz; Deepak, whose heart is really not quite in the villainy his profession demands; and Dashrath Tiwari, the taxi driver given to poetic eloquence and philosophical rumination. To this human cast, we may also add other life forms. The Noor, its corridors adorned with framed photographs of Bollywood heroines of years past, is both character and setting, demanding its own adjective: Noorian. The Babur—a linguistic mutation wrought by the Indian tongue on the German name Bauer—the magnificent life-force of the Noor, uncomplainingly throwing its beam on screen day after day. Tyson, the house dog of the Noor, who we meet briefly. And, finally, the great city of Bombay, in all its shabby, resplendent charm.

Indeed, the novel is also a love letter to the city of Bombay, to its alleys that, despite their filth, hold in them a quiet silence and beauty, to its decrepit buildings like the Noor, and to its dusty suburbs. Choudhury writes as someone intimately familiar with Bombay, incorporating the rhythms of the city and the cadences of its speech into the flow of events in the novel. This is the city of the flaneur, quite distinct from the fevered nostalgia of the expatriate seen in Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City or the vacuous, sterile aestheticization of filth witnessed in Danny Boyle’s film Slumdog Millionaire.

Choudhury’s skill as a writer shines through in his description of the relationships between the characters, which are conjured up with empathy and sly humor. We sense the grudging admiration that lies underneath the sarcastic banter of Arzee and his friends, and the gruff tenderness that develops between seeming adversaries as they realize that it is circumstance that has pitted them against each other. Unusual and apposite metaphors, unexpected turns of phrase, and delicate poetic touches vest the text with a pleasing richness. Waking up one morning, hot, bothered, and in a foul mood, Arzee’s annoyance is compounded by the fact that he is covered by a sheet, which Mother has placed over him, a perfect symbol of the nature of their bond, as Arzee sees it. A light mist rises, “like that seen when sugar is poured into jars” (59). The day looms before Arzee like a “long, flat, soul-sapping expanse” (67). And Arzee’s unruly mind, even in his despondency, cannot help wonder what shampoo the Godman Sri Sri Ravi Shankar uses.

The one criticism one might have with the book is that Choudhury is almost overcautious in not wanting to overwrite. Readers of The Middle Stage, Choudhury’s literary journal, will know that he considers engaging in pointless verbal pyrotechnics an act of literary self-indulgence. While Choudhury is careful not to lapse into such excess, one feels that some of the relationships, like that between Arzee and Phiroz or Arzee and Phiroz’s daughter, are pregnant with possibilities that could have been mined further. But this expectation may itself be seen as proof of Choudhury’s abilities as a writer, and his commitment to restrained and measured description does not diminish the tremendous achievement of a remarkable first work.

As a result of India’s integration into the global economy, the abiding effect of the Arundhati Roy and Aravind Adiga Booker victories, and the interest of Western publishers in Indian writers, Indian fiction is at an interesting crossroads. It appears to be driven by competitiveness for bigger advances, global markets for neo-Orientalism, and a fetishization of the expatriate Indian experience. The imaginative worlds of recent fiction about India, by Indians and non-Indians alike, teem with themes by now tedious because worked threadbare. Many novels or collections of short stories are simply unoriginal elaborations of such ‘Indian’ themes, a representative list of which might be as follows. Masala or spice, chutney, chai, the idiosyncracies of Indian English, immigrants finding their roots by returning to the towns and villages of their ancestors, laments about the diasporic and postcolonial predicament, the encounter of East and West, arranged marriage, love marriage, women throwing off the yoke of tradition and entering the state of emancipated selfhood, joint families, poverty, garbage, caste, religion, riots, especially of the Hindu-Muslim variety, terrorism, the Indian underworld, and Bollywood. The Marxist critic Frederic Jameson’s controversial remark that all Third World literature is national allegory might, paradoxically, hold true for much Indian (and South Asian) fiction being produced today, even as the content of the national is reframed for global markets. Alternately, one finds Indian novels that are simply compendia of the excruciating minutiae of personal biographies, masked in unconvincing pseudonyms, to which grand political and sociological significance is immodestly imputed.

Like the finest novelists writing today who take as their canvas that space and place called India—among whom one might count Amitav Ghosh, Amit Chaudhuri, Jhumpa Lahiri, and I. Allan Sealy—Choudhury’s work refuses to be straitjacketed into a formulaic prepackaging of things ‘Indian.’ Arzee the Dwarf, the poignant, moving story of a man slightly ajar with the world, finds kinship with characters from a range of literary traditions, such as Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin. Beautifully produced, with a mesmerizing cover design, Chandrahas Choudhury’s gem of a book inaugurates what promises to be a formidable literary career.

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Rohit Chopra is Editor, Interjunction and Assistant Professor of Communication at Santa Clara University, California.

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