A chat with Chandrahas Choudhury, whose “Arzee the Dwarf” has been shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best First Book
A literary award, to use a cliché, is a boon and a bane. It draws reader's attention to a talent that would otherwise have gone unnoticed or under-appreciated in a literary minefield where sometimes what's between the cover might remain just there, no matter how brilliant. It might, on the other hand, exert pressure on a writer's future literary endeavours. As Chandrahas Choudhury, author of “Arzee the Dwarf”, says, “As far as the relationship between a writer and an award is concerned, it is important to stop thinking about it.”
“All the happiness I had to get from the book I got from writing it,” he says.
“Arzee the Dwarf”, published by HarperCollins, has been shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers' Prize in the Best First Book category, along with “The Hungry Ghosts” by Anne Berry (Britain), “Tail of the Blue Bird” by Nii Parkes (Britain), “An Equal Stillness” by Fransesca Kay (Britain), and “In Other Rooms, Other Wonders” by Daniyal Meeuneddin (Pakistan) and “Among Thieves” by Mez Packer (Britain). Past awardees include Vikram Chandra for “Red Earth Pouring Rain” (1996), Zadie Smith for “White Teeth” (2001), and Mark Haddon for “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time” (2004), to name a few.
“I started writing this book in 2006; it took me three years,” says Choudhury. “I got the idea from a Mumbai street. I wanted to narrate the story from the point of view of someone living on the margins of society.”
As the title suggests, the book is about a dwarf named Arzee. Working as a film projectionist in a cinema in Mumbai, Arzee frequently sees himself as the deprived one in the land of the “fives and sixes”. At the same time, he is no wronged angel, exhibiting malice and weaknesses when a situation necessitates it, with a tendency to over-analyse the causes of his own suffering and believing in the determination of fellow beings in doing him deliberate injustice.
In the author's words, the cinema at once becomes a metaphor for Arzee's hopes and fears. “Cinema is a space where people go to dream; it also becomes the place where Arzee starts to dream. Also, in the cinema you never see the projectionist. You only see his work. Arzee is always conscious of his height. Here, he is able to hide himself from the world,” says Choudhury.
A conscious attempt, however, has been made to avoid creating sympathy for the protagonist. “You'll find that when he speaks there's laughter with melancholy. His imagination is melodramatic and his friends poke fun at him because of his tendency to exaggerate his own sadness,” says the author.
Chandrahas Choudhury is also the editor of a forthcoming anthology of Indian short stories, “India: A Traveller's Literary Companion”. “I've gone through some of the best from a hundred years of Indian fiction. It's about writers who know a particular place and look at it from their point of view. For instance, there's Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay's story of a seller of medicinal oil in Calcutta... We sometimes forget that literature is a very local thing,” says Choudhury. “Half the works in the anthology are English fiction and half translation. I wanted to show both sides in Indian fiction.”
Coming to weaving stories of people with the texture of the place they live in, Mumbai is an integral part of “Arzee the Dwarf”. “I lived in Bombay when I was 9 to 18. I grew up in a small house in Santa Cruz, where four of us lived in a one BHK flat. Then I moved out to study. After that I've been in Mumbai for the last seven years now,” explains Choudhury. “I've lived in every part of Bombay. I feel like I know many Bombays within Bombay. It's very generous in terms of material and narrative energy,” he says.
Incidentally, the author's second novel, on which he is working, will also be set in Mumbai. But this one, he says, will be completely different from “Arzee the Dwarf”.
One day, though, he says he'd like to take Bombay out of him. “I would sometime like to go out of Mumbai and write about someplace else. I would like to write about my native Orissa someday,” he says.