Thursday, 10 September 2009

Book Review: Arzee the Dwarf

Chandrahas Choudhury is a very well-known blogger within Indian literary circles. His blog, The Middle Stage, is in my opinion, one of the finest literary blogs on the World Wide Web. Having followed the Middle Stage for the last few years, I was pretty sure that Choudhury’s debut novel would be very good. I turned out to be wrong. Arzee the Dwarf is not just very good, it is outstanding.

Published by Harper Collins, Arzee the Dwarf tells the story of a vertically challenged man for a few turbulent days of his life. Arzee works for a cinema, the old fashioned and moth eaten Noor as an assistant projectionist. One of Arzee’s dreams is to become the head projectionist, an event that is not so much out of reach since Phiroz, the head projectionist, is old and close to retirement. Another dream is to get married to an ordinary girl not afflicted with dwarfism. Using beautiful prose that is almost poetic and which pushes your imagination to stratospheric heights, without using a single redundant word, Choudhury floats Arzee to the peak of happiness and then drops him into a valley of despair before he brings out a banner of hope. Do Arzee’s dreams materialise?

Set almost entirely in Old Mumbai, in and around Breach Candy, Grant Road, Mumbai Central, Khar Road, Jogeshwari etc, a geography where Choudhury is entirely at home, Arzee the Dwarf makes its readers walk over rotting garbage, wade through dirty puddles, smell Arzee’s foul armpits and bad breath, all the while entranced by Choudhury’s golden yarn.

There are surprises galore. What is taken for granted by the reader is turned over and made to stand on its head, time and again. The linkages that lead from one significant development to another all almost entirely realistic and even where they are not, Choudhury is very much within his creative licence. One of the best things about Arzee the Dwarf is that each one of Choudhury’s main characters is out of the ordinary, eccentric even, but very, very real. Choudhury’s characterisation, in my opinion, takes Arzee the Dwarf close to magical realism.

If at all there can be any grievance about Arzee the Dwarf, it is that Choudhury could have told us more about some of his secondary characters, having piqued our curiosity sufficiently about them. For example, I would have liked to know more about Phiroz’s daughter or Arzee’s brother Mobin. However, Choudhury gets one so close and personal to Arzee and other main characters such as Deepak and Phiroz, that this drawback doesn’t register till a few hours after one has put down the book.

Arzee the Dwarf runs to around fifty five thousand words (by my own estimate). It is not only ‘unputdownable’, but also does something most books by Indian authors fail to do. It makes its reader smile frequently, even when the protagonist is not doing very well for himself. At times, the smile turns to a chuckle. But don’t worry, there is no danger of you laughing uproariously when reading this book.

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