Arzee and his big world

Arzee and his big world

New Book

Playing With Imagination: Author Chandrahas Choudhury

Arzee the Dwarf is a short novel about a short man with long plans. It is also the first novel by Chandrahas Choudhury, book critic and blogger.

The novel follows the eponymous dwarf Arzee over a period of 14 days as he traverses the length and breadth of Mumbai and interacts with a broad representation of its residents. Much of the book forms the colourful setting for Arzee's heated ruminations on life and its imperfections, on identity and the conflict between nature and context. The shrillness of Arzee's constant inner monologue is only contrasted, or perhaps intensified, by his puny stature and his uniquely melodramatic view of life (which may also have much to do with his long-time job as a projectionist at an old cinema house named Noor). Unlike the typical melodrama, however, the nuances of thought and description in the book, and the intricate juxtaposition of comedy and pathos, lift the narrative beyond mere emotional manipulation and into the realm of Shakespearean drama.

Edited excerpts from a conversation with Choudhury, who was in Bangalore to launch the book a week ago:

Why did Arzee have to be a dwarf?

It's what gives the character a specific context. The voice of the book, a dwarf's voice, has a higher pitch. It comes with an internal melodrama. You always imagine yourself, make up stories about yourself, from a particular point of view, being who you are, and that lends your world-view a certain flavour. Arzee's height, in a manner of speaking, heightens his awareness of, and response to, the various circumstances he's thrown into.

Yes, I noticed that this idea - the role of the imagination in postponing one's awareness of the present - seems to be a recurring theme in the novel, first spoken of by Arzee's friend, the philosophical taxi driver Dashrath Tiwari. "[Man] is convicted by reality," muses Tiwari, "and pardoned by the imagination."

That scene with Tiwari worried me a little initially, as I felt I might be getting a little too theoretical there. I realised later that it served to lighten the narrative and state an essential premise of the book, which is that Arzee is a dreamer who lives in his imagination.

It's almost as if he compensates for his smallness by dreaming big. Can we draw the corollary then that the more perfect you are, the less imaginative you become?

(Laughs.) Yes, well, the most perfect person is probably the most boring person in the world. There's no fun in that.

There's a point in the book where Arzee moonlights by dressing up as a fizzy drink, as part of a promotional campaign. This, of course, is the kind of thing that dwarves are traditionally associated with, in their public perception - as entertainers and performers who dress up in ridiculous costumes.

The object of ridicule is exactly what Arzee doesn't want to be or want to be seen as.

It's his worst nightmare come true. It's also a way of showing that commercial values and promotion have become pervasive and all-powerful in our society.

Does the sense of melodrama in the narrative come from the fact that Arzee's understanding of the world may be tempered by his job as a projectionist?

That's never explicitly mentioned in the book. In fact, I tried to underplay the importance of cinema in Arzee's life to some extent, especially once he was away from the Noor and out in the world. It's essential that Indian novels not be parasitic on Indian cinema. I wanted to refer to a general cinema, not a particular cinema. You can see that the world of the novel is not a Hindi world.

Yes, I did notice that the language of the book is never an exact translation of the language that the characters might have originally spoken in - which is a refreshing departure from the often heavy-handed tendency among Indian writers to try and exactly replicate the flavour of a local language by way of an awkward English.

Sometimes people take an excessively laboured view of what is translation and what is original. I've worked from a certain overall structural principle: not with the intention of precisely translating the dialogues but to lend credibility to whatever's being said. In some cases, I've even left in a few Hindi words for lack of a good enough counterpart in the English. For instance, where Arzee talks of his ‘tanta life'. ‘Tanta' is a very Bombay expression, about all the troubles one has to face in life, that loses its colour when translated. I've also invented a few English words, like when speaking of Arzee's ‘bunty legs'. The word feels right within its context - the reader can figure out what it means from the general sound of it. One needs to take chances with language.

The story of Arzee has several universal themes and off-beat characterisation. It seems to lend itself quite well to theatrical or cinematic adaptation.

There has been some small interest in film rights, since the book's launch. Ideally, however, I would wait three or four months before I allow for adaptation. It has, after all, only been ten days since the book's launch. At this stage, I would like to discourage talk about film rights, purely because I'd like people to view Arzee as a book first and let the book find its own place in the world. After that, of course, an adaptation would be great. It all depends on who might make it though. Arzee could end up as the worst kind of hammy tearjerker.

Maybe you should approach Danny Boyle, ask him what he thinks.

(Laughs.) That's certainly an idea. Let me write to my agent.

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