A slightly edited version of this book review has appeared in Apr-Jun 2010 issue of Success & Ability
The vulnerability you feel being physically abnormal in the so-called normal world or to put it simply the insecurity and fear of emotional and physical hurt one feels for owning a deformed and weak body, yet hiding it with built-up audacity and witticism is beautifully brought out in Chandrahas Choudhury’s debut novel Arzee the Drawf. That is not all; the book also successfully brings out the fact that these people live life internally (in which everything is magnified or looked through the prism of their deformity) even if they pretend to be extroverted and out-going. They are like iceberg, with only a small part of them being seen by the world.
Arzee is employed as deputy projectionist in a dilapidated cinema hall named Noor. He seems to be regaining his confidence after a failed love affair and is hoping to get a promotion as the head projectionist seventy years old Phiroz has conveyed his desire to leave the job. Though unsure of the good times he just boasts about to his friends with whom he plays Card games.
The book is divided into thirteen chapters in which the author tries to provide us the experience of a roller-coaster ride ending one chapter on a happy note and the next one on despair. It tries to mingle the personal life of the protagonist with the atmospherics of the metropolitan Bombay (sic). So, there is everything from the stench of urine on the roadside and a rat passing through the legs in the theatre to Cricket betting and goons chasing you for the amount you have lost in the betting.
But, in all these the writer does not lose the meditative narration of Arzee’s inner life. The turmoil he is going through almost in a ‘stream of consciousness’ manner where a serious thought may end rousing a chuckle in us or a seemingly lighter thought culminate with unexpected profundity. Sample Arzee’s thoughts on reading the poster of breathing exercise recommended by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar of Art of Living; The breath! Arzee had never really thought about breath – it seemed to take care of itself, so there was always something else to think about. He breathed deeply once or twice, but didn’t feel any difference, and he was too tired to hold out for longer. Idly he found himself wondering what brand of shampoo Sri Sri Ravi Shankar used.
These things give a solid base to the character whether in his thought process or even in his dealing with others. The language used here is proper English, without peppering of local slang. But, that does not take away anything as far as representing low life of Mumbai is concerned; even the cosmopolitan nature of the city is well.
There are characters doing cameo (for a couple of pages); like Arzee’s cab driver friend Dashrath Tiwari, who doubles up as dialogue writer of Bhojpuri films. Once they have zestful conversation in a roadside teashop past midnight about Arzee’s depressing phase and vanish never to return.
Arzee even fights against being stereotyped, so he slaps his girlfriend’s father who tells him to go back to circus in a violent fury. Later he convinces us that the slap was unintentional. Likewise, the humiliation he feels when he has to dress up like the bottle of a newly launched soft-drink and stand outside malls on a daily basis for a good amount.
Arzee the Dwarf is extremely readable book for the empathy it has towards its eponymous lead. Its slim size (of just 184 pages) is deceptive as it is heavier than it actually feels like.
Chandrahas Choudhury’s blog The Middle Stage