Chandrahas Choudhury’s debut novel Arzee the Dwarf follows the eponymous three-foot -five-inch tall protagonist around Mumbai for a period of two weeks, as he journeys between hope and despair, illusion and disillusion.
Arzee’s small stature has been the cause of much angst and self-pity throughout his adult life. The book opens with a battle-hardened Arzee resolving to live differently from now on. “He offered less, took more; he was not flat-footed any longer, but threw himself into the dance.” Thus, a new, tougher, less submissive Arzee is born on the first page. Weary of his past misfortunes, Arzee tells himself – “Remember, all’s fair and fine, friends, when life’s not fair.” This worldly cynicism is paired however with great personal hope.
Living in hope
Phiroz, the elderly head projectionist of the historic Noor Cinema where Arzee works, is about to retire, and he expects to take over that position. This promotion will allow him to repay the gambling debt he has accrued. Perhaps more importantly, it will enable his mother to find him a wife, even though Arzee appears to still be heartbroken over a lost love. Soon, however, it will be “the age of Arzee,” he assures readers.
Alas, the hopes are soon dashed. The Noor, it turns out, is to close down, and with it will go Arzee’s current job as well. Pursued by the apparently ruthless debt collector Deepak, and unable to face his overprotective mother, Arzee walks about the streets of Bombay late at night, feeling sorry for himself. This is something he is rather good at.
The book is strewn with Arzee’s long, rambling monologues. Funny, self-deprecating, poignant, and wise, these indicate both his loneliness and his self-sufficiency. In a city where no one seems to care about others, Arzee can only talk to himself. And he does so frequently, wallowing in self pity and lamenting the absence of human connection. “They shared work, shared space, shared time, but did not share confidences. But that was how it was in Bombay – everybody was like that.” He even compares himself to Christ, alone and suffering.
As his world begins to shatter around him, however, Arzee gradually discovers that while he may be shorter than everyone else, he is by no means the only one with worries. “Everyone has troubles,” Deepak tells him. “Problems upon problems,” echoes Phiroz. “Life is a procession of troubles,” remarks the literary cab driver Dashrath Tiwari.
As the other characters’ lives – and problems – are revealed – to both Arzee and through him to the reader – they become more and more interesting and complex. Arzee discovers Phiroz has a charming daughter with her own secret, one that Phiroz has hidden from him all these years. Deepak’s outer machismo turns out to be a façade for a different man within.
Even Arzee’s own mother, from whom he is trying to conceal his impending unemployment, turns out to be nurturing the biggest secret of all. As his life begins to unravel with every piece of new information he receives, Arzee is forced to unlearn what he thought he knew about his own life, and begin the process of understanding others and, through them, himself.
Little people in a corner
This is a novel about the underdog, about people who might easily get swallowed up in the maelstrom of life in a metropolis like Bombay. People like Ranade the stockbroker who is long dead but continues to haunt his old room, and Dashrath the cab driver who writes dialogues for Hindi movies. It’s a novel about people who work behind the scenes. No one embodies this better in this city of films than the projectionist whose task is to stay in the shadows and keep the movie running no matter what. “A projectionist’s first cause, whether he was living or dying, was always that of the show. The show was not supposed to suffer, just as children were not supposed to suffer.”
Perhaps that is why The Noor is one of the most beguiling characters in the book. Once glorious, it now finds much of its renown fading. Its lofty hallways and stuffy corridors smell musty and look old. Most of its rooms have fallen into disuse and remain shuttered. But the “old and decrepit” atmosphere only lends to its charm. The fact that no one has seen its owner for a decade adds to its mystique. The corridor that runs around the balcony of the cinema displays, under spider webs, the framed photographs of Bollywood divas from past to present – Nargis, Waheeda Rehman, Hema Malini, Sridevi. Arzee feels a special affinity with them, for they too knew what it was like to lose in love and to long for things.
It is easy to understand why this job means everything to Arzee. As Choudhury explains, everywhere else Arzee must look up at the world, but from the projection room at the Noor, he looks down at it. He takes tremendous pride in his work, and his affection for the cinema and the Babur, the great projector itself, which has been beaming four shows a day for 30 years, is infectious.
City of tall stories
It is also easy to see why this book was shortlisted for the Commonwealth First Book Prize in 2010. In it, Choudhury, a literary critic based in Mumbai at the time of writing the novel, combines some wonderful writing with a compelling story. There are some poetic passages that weave images of the city in its various facets with Arzee’s ruminations on life.
An instance is when Arzee and Dashrath drink tea late at night in the Café Momin.
“A light mist, like that when sugar is poured into jars, had appeared…The sky was sown thickly with clouds, massy as cauliflower heads…A single shoe was lying forlorn on the street – where had he seen a shoe lying just like that? A high-rise was being repainted, and under a single light-bulb left on high, he saw the breeze across the sackcloth on the scaffolding, which was rippling like the film of cream on Dashrath’s tea. Everything was so quiet and still it seemed to Arzee that he was floating. It seemed possible to believe now, as it was not during the day, that the world was slowly turning, spinning, as his schoolbooks had said.”
This is not just a pretty narrative where the protagonist wanders around the streets and reflects on the world. Information is revealed strategically, often through dialogue and characters’ reactions, before we find out for ourselves. While hints of a previous heartbreak appear early, the actual story of Monique, the mysterious hairdresser whom Arzee was once in love with, emerges only gradually, as he begs Deepak to try to track her down.
We learn what really happened to Arzee’s father, even as tension rises about what will happen to Arzee now. Instead of revelling in past events or present scene, the novel constantly moves forward, raising questions as it goes. What will Arzee do when the Noor shuts down? Will he be able to repay the gambling debt? Will he ever find Monique, who still haunts him?
The book is not devoid of humor, much of which comes from Arzee’s endearing personality as he whines, complains, introspects, and spars – both verbally and physically – with those much bigger than him. Some of the dialogue is quite funny. “You demand things like my boss,” Deepak the gruff and muscled gangster tells him in exasperation.
Ultimately, Arzee the Dwarf isn’t as dark as it may sound. Just like the Babur’s beam shines through the surrounding darkness of the Noor to light up the movie screen, so too does Choudhury’s writing lighten up what might have become a very heavy subject matter. At only 199 pages, this warm, poignant, and charming novel will take up only a little room on your bottom shelf.
Oindrila Mukherjee tweets here.
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