Review of Azree the Dwarf
My friend Chandrahas Choudhury recently released his debut novel Arzee the Dwarf, published by Harper Collins.
Chandrahas is a good friend, a brilliant writer and one of the nicest human beings I know. Experiencing or consuming a creative work by a friend is always special. And reviewing it is always tricky because one can never be sure if one's appreciation is objective or driven by personal affection for the friend. I loved the book, but did I love it only because Chandrahas wrote it? My answer to that is a resounding NO! I loved the book because it is an amazing book, and one of Chandrahas' greatest triumphs in writing Arzee is the fact that the book does not automatically seem that it was written by him. There are hardly any telltale signs in the writing that one can immediately pin on him and say "This line is SOOOOO Chandrahas!". The book seems like it was written by Arzee himself, but in third person.
Hash, as all his friends call him, has managed to create a captivating voice for Arzee when Arzee speaks, but also a delightful second-voice of narration that can only be Arzee himself. There are literary flourishes and some very poetic lines in the book which has a uniquely sophisticated yet earthy vocabulary to it. The hard work that must have gone into writing and rewriting each line laboriously for a couple of years has paid off, and Arzee the Dwarf is a masterpiece not only in terms of a telling a splendidly moving and multi-layered story, but also in the rich and engaging way the story is told.
The first thing that I found myself admiring about the book was the perfection in what I think of as Arzee's "silent soliloquy's", i.e. the times when we are told in detail what Arzee is thinking to himself. They are beautifully crafted, and yet realistic enough to seem like actual ruminations. Complete with digressions, tangents and non-sequitirs that characterize our own thoughts. Here's a sample -
Phiroz! At least the old man could have warned him! Did all these years that they'd been working in concert count for nothing? Granted, many days they didn't talk at all, or if they did, it was of the same humdrum matters. It was true that, although Phiroz knew about Mother and Mobin, and had met Mother on occasion, and Arzee knew that Phiroz's wife was long gone, and that the only family he had was a daughter, the subject of family never came up between the two projectionists. They shared work, shared space, shared time, but did not share confidences. But that was how it was in Bombay - everybody was like that! And a gap of more than forty years separated them in age, so their relationship was somewhat formal. Yet they were linked together by ties of profession, by the sharing of the projection room and the Babur, by the fact of one generation being succeeded by another.
See what I mean? There's an effortless realism in this passage that reveals Hash's immeasurable talent, but can only be the product of a lot of hard work. The book is full of such gems that give us a delicious insight into the chaotically structured mind of Arzee.
Not only does Hash do a phenomenal job of laying bare Arzee's mind, but he also gives glimpses of Bombay from unexplored perspectives. Many writers have described Bombay eloquently, sliced and diced it every which way. And yet, when slivers of Arzee's Bombay are described repeatedly, there is always an unexpected angle that simultaneously makes you go "This is SO correct, I have always thought about this place the same way!" and "This is interesting...never thought about this place like that!". Here he is describing the view from the top of the Grant Road Bridge -
The gleaming tracks that came all the way from distant Virar, the asbestos roof pocked with holes and bits of rubbish sifted by birds, the little figurines of people in their ill-fitting clothes standing in slack poses on the platform, and the shoeshine men beating their brushes on their boxes - there was something vivid, life-giving, about this scene, just as there was about the projection room with its heat and light and the celluloid rubbing down the tracks of the machine.
There are also bits of ironic humor sprinkled throughout the book. Bits that don't make you guffaw and roll on the floor, but ones that make you chuckle for a few seconds, and then make you chuckle once more three pages later when you remember the line again, making you flip the pages back and re-read it. A great example is from when Arzee is sitting in the church -
Some of the people cast curious glances upon a very short man sitting all by himself on a bench right at the back, and two girls tittered over a joke aimed at him. But Arzee ignored them steadfastly, for they knew not what they were doing.
I could go on and on quoting lines that I loved, but I am afraid I might end up transcribing the whole book here, and that might make a dent in Hash's royalties. For it is a book that you must own and not borrow. It is one of those books that has to be re-read multiple times, discovering hidden nuances, ironies and pleasure points that you were bound to have missed when you read it last. Not just in the lines but also in the situations and the plot itself. For instance, maybe I am thick but it was only when I began reading it for the second time that I was struck by the significance of Arzee, a dwarf, working with a machine that "took a picture the size of a passport photograph, and threw it out into the screen magnified to three thousand times its original size!"
I am eagerly anticipating many such Eureka moments that await me as I re-read the book further, and that will hit me when I least suspect it, often when I am not even reading the book. And that's what separates a work of genius from a merely great book - its ability to seep into your senses and intrude into your consciousness even when it is several feet away, innocently standing in the shelf, slanted at a 70 degree angle and sandwiched between two other books.
Above all, what makes the book really click is that Arzee's voice, his mind, his heart, so vividly put into words, come together to bring you close to a persona that is remarkably endearing and fascinating, but is also perfectly placed - Arzee is not larger than life (pardon the pun)... he does not make you want him to nominate for any against-the-odds achievement awards. Nor does he seem too petty or churlish. He occasionally takes some mighty swigs of that hallucinogen we all love to partake of - self pity, but never drowns in it. Even when he cries, there is a definite dignity to him. And when he triumphs or succeeds, it does not seem surprising.
And when he finally bids you farewell on page 184, he does it in a manner that you have now identified as being "Soooo Arzee". And he leaves you wanting much more.