Thursday, March 25, 2010

Baby Steps

Chandrahas Choudhury's Arzee the Dwarf

[warning: some spoilers]

(The first in what may - or may not - become a series of posts about recent Indian Writing in English. Like there isn't enough of that around.)

There are many reasons to celebrate Chandrahas Choudhury's Arzee the Dwarf. First, unlike the vast majority of IWE novels I've read in recent years, this one is neither a thinly veiled recycling of the author's own life story, nor a lightly fictionalized attempt to tell the 'truth' about contemporary India. Instead, it is a genuine cut-from-whole-cloth exercise in fiction, one with no agenda other than what belongs to the novel: to tell a story, to develop characters, to bring a world to life.

Second, Chandrahas can write. A slight tendency to wax eloquent notwithstanding, the prose in Arzee fluctuates between the serviceable and the inspired, which by itself places the book head and shoulders above much of what - if, say, Penguin's First Proof series is any indicator (I just read First Proof 5, and thought it was quite bad) - is out there.

Third, Arzee is, in both plot and spirit, a comic enterprise, one that brings wry gusto and a lightness of touch to the shabby realities of its characters' lives. This is a surprise - I had expected something altogether more grim - and one that I am entirely grateful for. It would have been easy to turn the story of Arzee, a 28-year old dwarf burdened with gambling debts, impending unemployment and a broken heart, into a maudlin tale about suffering, disillusion and the resilience of hope. Instead, we get a spunky, upbeat narrative that hums along with almost Rabelaisian energy.

Most of all, though, Arzee is notable for its charm. Peopled with a cast of delightful characters - including Ranade, the ghostly stock-broker; Dashrath Tiwari, the philosophical cab-driver; Deepakbhai, the kind-hearted gangster; and Rajneesh Sharma, the sentimental seth - all orbiting around the book's magnetic protagonist, Arzee is a brisk and easy read, a glimpse into a fantasy world of crumbling movie-theaters and gleaming hair salons, where complication piles on comic complication, and disaster dances on the fringes, never seriously threatening harm. At its best, Arzee reads as though a R.K. Narayan novel had been transplanted from Malgudi to modern-day Mumbai, and was a little bewildered by the relocation.

Its best, however, is short-lived. Charming as the book is, and shot through with glimpses of true talent, Arzee is also, in many ways, a stunted and inadequate book. To begin with, there's the main character's annoying habit of incessantly breaking into internal soliloquy, as though hidden inside that dwarf body were the spirit of a character out of a Marlowe play. An example:

"So it's come to this," he mused, and his compacted body seemed to pulse with these stirrings. 'It's not the best result, but it's something, and something's better than nothing. Ha - that's what everybody always told me to believe, that something's better than nothing. They told me to be thankful that I wasn't blind, or orphaned, or jobless - that my only burden was to be small. They couldn't understand what this being small was like - it was only two words to them. But enough of crumbs! On the move! This sky's so low, I feel I could touch it with a jump. And even if I can't, I'm still going to be able to reach it in a little while, because now the room in the sky's all mine. I'll drag down the body-proud like beasts, like cattle, and leap right above them like a shooting star!'"

This sort of thing goes on, page after page. The first few times these monologues kick in, with their oh-so-obvious sentiments and their childish bombast, the effect is, admittedly, somewhat comic; but it isn't long before they start to jar. It isn't just that in these ramblings Arzee tends to run on and on, frequently repeating what the reader has already been told or has surmised, or that as records of an interior monologue these speeches (there is no other word for them) seem curiously artificial; it's also that the use of the technique itself is bewildering, since Chandrahas can, and frequently does, use indirect reports of Arzee's thoughts to good effect. It's almost as though, in trying to introduce us to Arzee's inner life, the writer found himself torn between first and third person narratives, and arrived at an unhappy compromise that does justice to neither.

And it isn't just in his own head that Arzee talks like this. Every now and then he launches into one of these monologues in the middle of a perfectly mundane conversation. Consider, for instance:

"It's not that, Deepakbhai. Even if my parents belonged to the same religion, Deepakbhai, I think I would find it hard to believe. Because...because faith in God also means faith in other human beings, Deepakbhai. It means faith in the system. That's what makes for a faith. a way dwarfhood is its own religion, Deepakbhai. If I don't belong in the world of normal people at other points, then why should I be with them when they turn to God? I won't - I'll be myself instead!"

This goes on for another half page, but you get the idea.

As a speech of Shakesperian self-awareness this is splendid [1]. As part of a casual conversation about religion with a gangster Arzee barely knows, it is bizarre. It isn't just that the words seem desperately out of context (though they do); it's also that they seem completely out of character. How does someone who shows so little self-awareness, such a complete lack of irony, as Arzee regularly does in his monologues to himself, suddenly come out with this kind of insight in the middle of an everyday exchange? And why, in a novel, with all the possibilities for exploring a character's inwardness that the form affords, does the author feel the need to stick this in the middle of a conversation?

What's particularly disappointing about this is that Chandrahas has a fine ear for dialogue when he chooses to use it. Just a dozen pages before the passage quoted above, there's a long conversation between Arzee and the head projectionist's daughter Shireen that is pitch-perfect in its appreciation for the nuance of social exchange, a mix of politeness and flirtation so expertly done that you can imagine it taking place in your own drawing room.

Nor are Arzee's monologues the only problem with the book. A second problem is that the book is padded with a great deal of description that serves little discernible purpose. Consider:

"A sombre grey light had infused the scene of his daily descent. Down below in the market shopkeepers were exaggerating, customers haggling, feet advancing and retreating, hands pointing and waggling. Any moment hissing raindrops would come pouring down, umbrellas would spout everywhere, and tarpaulins would bloom; people would take refuge beneath the shop awnings, and drenched dogs squeeze in amidst their legs. Arzee spat in a corner and went skipping down the stairway, whistling through his crooked teeth. Suddenly he stumbled on a crack in the steps, but as he was about to fly headfirst into the street, he grabbed at the railing just in time to save his skull. And at this sudden threatening motion all the pigeons amassed at the kabutarkhana under the stairway rose up around him and went skittering away into the sky with a great beating of wings, and at that very moment the first raindrops began to come down."

It's an unexceptionable description (except for the repetitive -ing sounds at the start). It is also entirely unnecessary.

The problem, I think, is that Arzee's claim to realism is too frail to bear the weight of such oppressive detail. For all its careful descriptions, the book has little sense of place, mostly because the plot and characters seem to belong in a fantasy world, some Panglossian Mumbai where gangsters are understanding and kind, bar-girls are sentimental and obliging, and all things are bound to turn out for the best. Part of this is Arzee himself - charming as the dwarf is, his charm lies primarily in his hapless naivete, which seems difficult to credit in a 28-year old living poor and disabled in Mumbai. Compare Arzee to Indra Sinha's Animal, for instance, and it's hard to escape the sense of the former as fundamentally unreal.

And then there's the plot. When the gangster sent to collect Arzee's gambling debts befriends and helps him, you raise an amused eyebrow. When Arzee drifts effortlessly into a romantic relationship with a woman who seems inexplicably yet passionately in love with him, you swallow your incredulity and tell yourself not to be cynical. But when revelation piles on revelation, and then, just as you're actually starting to feel sorry for Arzee, all the challenges he faces are brought to a pat and satisfactory resolution, it becomes simply impossible to suspend your disbelief. If Chandrahas had managed to resist the temptation to tie up every loose string (and more, to tie it up happily), this would have been a much better book. As it is, the plot of the last twenty pages reads like something out of a Terry Pratchett novel.

And that, I think, is both Arzee the Dwarf's gift and its undoing. On the one hand, the novel amuses because it presents a vision of a charmed circle of characters living in some alternate world of general optimism, kind heartedness and good fortune. On the other hand, it is precisely this unreality that detracts from any emotional power the novel might have had.

In sum, Arzee the Dwarf is a novel of considerable comic potential that suffers from being both overwrought and overplotted. In Arzee, Chandrahas has created a truly delightful protagonist, one worthy of Shakespeare's Falstaff, or the comic plays of Moliere, but in transmuting so inherently dramatic a persona to the more prosaic atmosphere of the novel, Chandrahas both diminishes the character and overheats the book.

Still, as Arzee himself says, something 's better than nothing. I, for one, look forward to a novel that combines the considerable gift for comedy on display here with a more pragmatic narrative, and a more consistent style. Now that would be a book truly worth celebrating.

[1] In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that while I've never met Chandrahas, we've exchanged a number of e-mails and he's the author of an extremely insightful and extraordinarily positive review of etudes. I'd like to think that has no influence of my assessment of his book, but you never can tell.

[2] Shakespeare, or Shakespearian speech, seems a constant presence in the book. Consider, for instance (from one of Arzee's internal monologues): "Can they deny me my kingdom, and buy my consent with their sympathies"

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