Friday, February 9, 2018

Arzee the Dwarf

When I picked up Chandrahas Choudhury’s Arzee the Dwarf, I did so more under the sway of emotions than from any genuine expectations about the book itself. I had read the author’s blog and knew his writing style was interesting and thought provoking, and since the book was easy enough on the pocket, I went and made the impromptu purchase. And boy was it worth every penny and more. Not once did I imagine that the unassuming little book, barely two hundred pages long, would leave me deep in thought for days.

Arzee – ‘Arzoo’ to his mother – is little. He is a grown up adult, nearly twenty eight years old at the time of the novel, and yet he is a ‘little man’. At three feet five inches, he is a dwarf, and that is the most defining element of his entire being, or so he has come to believe. Like Tyrion Lannister, probably the most recognizable dwarf character among millenials today, Arzee has come to wear his dwarfhood like a cloak, proclaiming it upfront to a world that will not let him forget what he is.  

At the beginning of the novel we find Arzee in a state of victorious joy. He seems to be a man coming into his own strength for the first time. He tells himself that the time has come for him to change, to grow, to be more than he has ever been before. And all of this realization has come not merely from his own inner reservoir of strength and fortitude – that is for later –but also from the promise of some very welcome news about a promotion and a financial increment of five thousand rupees in his monthly income, a sum that seems to him life-altering in the opportunities it can open up.  

And yet life throws up the most unexpected hurdles and pitfalls in Arzee’s way at the very moment when he expects matters to improve. Instead of the long-awaited promotion at work, he gets the worst possible news that turns his world upside down in a moment. Soon after this follows a revelation of his personal history that threatens to push him off the edge completely. In the maze of hopelessness and anger and abject misery he is plunged into, Arzee’s hold on reality, unsteady at the best of times, seems to slip through his fingers and drive him deeper into a land of nightmares.

There is nothing permanently dark and gloomy about Arzee’s state of being though; he perseveres, and emerges a winner. In the span of a few weeks, it is almost a new person that faces the world, ready to take on whatever life has to throw at him. The old Arzee is gone, in more senses than one, but not entirely. The process of self-transformation that Arzee had been so convinced about in the beginning completes itself only towards the end, and it is much less showy than he had expected. But it is more definite, more secure, and less likely to evaporate by a mere scratching of the surface. Our little dwarf is indeed a bigger man by the end of it all, and all the more loveable for it.

Arzee the Dwarf is a book about love and relationships, and not just between humans. The central relationship of the narrative is that between Arzee and the Noor Cinema, a historic but run down establish where Arzee has worked for the past decade as a projectionist. The Noor is more a home to him than his tiny family apartment. It is his kingdom; it is the one place where he looks down on the earth from the majestic height of his projectionist’s room, instead of staring up in awe at it. It is where he revels in the familiar femininity of the ‘ladies’. Arzee, lover of darkness, finds his own comfortable niche in the Noor’s perpetual gloom. His entire life’s  tapestry seems to be inextricably woven into the Noor’s looming presence, so it is of little surprise that when that unshakable presence is threatened, his life comes nearly undone, forcing him to move out of his safe haven and explore the world anew.

The other characters add spice to Arzee’s topsy-turvy world, and compete each other in eccentricity and the ability to catch the reader off guard. Mr. Choudhury has a special gift when it comes to creating people; his characters are unpolished and real, sometimes slightly repulsive, always very familiar. There is Deepak, the goon from the syndicate that Arzee has managed to get himself entangled with, the most unlikely and sometimes unwilling friend Arzee finds by him at a very difficult time of his life. There is Phiroze, the old Parsi head projectionist at the Noor, whose reticent and withdrawn manner is the perfect foil to Arzee’s own explosive persona. There is Mother, the all too familiar doting Indian parent who still treats her grown son like a child, and plays a vital role in the evolution of Arzee’s nature. And then there is the mysterious Monique, the lost love whose existence is central in Arzee’s story as much as her absence is formative. Even the minor characters, who are often mentioned no more than a couple of times in the novel, are invaluable to the flow of the narrative. Phiroze’s daughter with her pretty way of talking and her sad secret, Rajneesh Sharma, the elusive owner of the Noor who Arzee considers his biggest enemy until a fateful encounter towards the end, Dashrathji, Arzee’s friend and probably the most philosophical taxi driver on the streets of Bombay – it is the way that their lives cross Arzee’s for a few fleeting minutes, like the momentary brush of a woman’s dupatta on the streets, that make him the person he grows into, and the novel the quaint little pleasure it is.

And then there is Arzee himself. Mr. Choudhury has done something remarkable – he has made Arzee a little like everybody, but a unique specimen as a whole. Arzee never forgets his dwarfhood, and makes sure that everyone else remains perpetually aware of it. His deep sense of victimhood, of having been wronged by the world, gives him a certain air of entitlement. He complains incessantly about the hardships he has to face because of his stature. He is acutely aware of his position as the proverbial underdog, and this makes him bitter. And yet there is a philosopher hiding in that little body. The life of his mind is vibrant and serves him well as a constant companion. There is a childlike quality to him that sometimes peeks through the veils of worldly cynicism that shroud his mind, particularly when he is at his most vulnerable. He goes through the same anxieties about money and family, the same sense of vague confusion and lack of direction in his working life, the same pleasures and highs of lovemaking, the same gut wrenching pains of heartbreak that almost every young person experiences at this stage of life. I found myself stopping several times throughout the narrative, disconcerted at the way Mr Choudhury seems to have taken my thoughts and emotions and put them into his little dwarf. But that is the magic that authors know and wield. Arzee is loveable as much for his familiarity as he is distant through his own distinct experience of life.

Above all else though, Arzee is a story about Bombay. The city breathes life into the narrative, and the author returns the favour several times over. The descriptions are so vivid, never overly dramatized yet startlingly alive. It is in the minutest details that the impact is the strongest. The names of characters, the odours, the roadside salons, the overcrowded and squelchy railway junctions, even the colours used to describe the city bring out the urgency, the potency and the never-ending rush of humanity that is Bombay. The city is a living presence, always very close at hand, shaping the lives and thoughts of the human beings, making them just so and not a little otherwise. The city lover in me spent a most memorable few hours, savouring the word picture painted by the author, my heart doing a secret happy jig all the while.

There is no definite ending to Arzee’s tale. The narrative has an undulating style, sometimes rushed, sometimes more serene, always in sync with Arzee’s mental state. There are so many different threads, so many potential side stories, so many chance twists and turns, almost like the path woven by a bicyclist pedalling his way through a crowded market street. The reader’s attention is constantly pulled in different directions because Arzee is never stagnant. Even as the narrative draws to a close, so many questions remain unanswered. Arzee’s own future course of action remains uncertain. But unlike many other novels that are equally open ended, this one did not leave me with a sense of dissatisfaction. Turning over the last page, I was content to lie back and dream a little about what Arzee might have done next. I do not want a definite answer – life is sometimes about letting loose ends be, and this is one such time.  

This was Chandrahas Choudhury’s debut novel, and reading it has made me feel impatient for more of his works. He has a rather whimsical style of writing – there is a constant sense of wonder to it, sometimes veering towards a little wooliness, particularly during Arzee’s mental conversations. His sense of humour is unassuming even when it is sarcastic. It shows itself at the most unexpected moments. I imagine that this style may not find takers everywhere. Some may find the novel a little slow; indeed I myself struggled a little with the initial chapters. But there is an intoxicating quality to his prose. At some point you are drawn into a world of thought and ideas, and you find yourself drifting weightlessly through its stream. The experience can be best summarised through the author’s own words – “Do we live the life that’s given to us, or do we really live a kind of dream life? Isn’t our inner life really a life of the imagination?” The success of Arzee lies in the way that it stirs the imagination, and reignites the inner life of the reader, pushing him to exercise his own creative faculties and paint his own picture of Arzee’s future.