In Conversation: Chandrahas Choudhury, Author, Arzee The Dwarf

In all the author interviews that I’ve done so far, this perhaps was the most different and most enjoyable since it was a free-flowing conversation about not just Arzee The Dwarf but about blogs, cinema, books and writing. Hence, I’m reproducing the interview as it happened with minimal editing. Hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I did

If you were to compare Arzee to a movie character, which would it be?

(Pauses) Never thought about it. And to answer the question with a question, why is it necessary that we compare him with a movie character? What is it about Arzee that necessitates a comparison?

It doesn’t necessitate a comparison; it’s just a thought that came to my head while reading the book. Let me put it this way; if he were to be closest to a movie character which would it be?

Well for that you don’t have to look into the past but into the future. There’s been some talk of film rights as well but (in the film) it would have to be a new Arzee. Some of the things in the book would have to go. Arzee will be himself in the movie, not somebody else

So there is there a movie version of the book in the works?

No, no, no. As with any novel that comes out these days, there’s been some talk but I can see how – or maybe its just my presumption as a writer – there are some elements in the book that mind lend themselves cinematically.

When and where was Arzee conceived, and how? Was it an incident, a place, an experience, a person…?

Hmm. I think maybe a short story comes that way but with a novel its just the work of years. Some of the things which are in Arzee today – and which are the most important - came to me in November of last year. The book was already bought (by the publishers), I was on the stage of the last draft of it and one of the good things about novel writing is that so many of the good things come to you so late and you have to wait for it. So what you initially start off is a very thin which stems from an incident or any one experience, but that can never be enough. So I would say when it comes to novels, or works which go onto much longer, the initial idea may not have the same significance for a shorter work. What comes later is more significant, the kind of work you do on what was your initial draft is more important.

But suppose you’ve done 70-80% of the MS (manuscript), how difficult is it to incorporate what you’ve thought of later into what you’ve already done?

Its just got to be done. Some passages have to be cut…you need to have a view of the whole from above and you need to know that if you’ve put something here then you have to cut something out there. You just have to wait for the moment where you know you’re text and do what you like with it because you know, you’re in control. Working in an uncontrolled way just produces further burden!(both laugh out loud) That is NOT to be recommended! So it’s a process of striving, of confusion and finally a kind of clarity at the end of the day.

How much of Chandrahas is there in any Arzee? And how much of Arzee is Chandrahas in real life?

Umm, you know every author is his character in some way. If he wasn’t then it wouldn’t be a good character. I think it was Flauber who said something about Madame Bovary bou vouen but he didn’t really mean he was Madame Bovary but the thought that has to be expanded from those four words is if you can’t imagine you character into life then nobody else would be interested in it. And every character’s fund of experience can only come from what the writer knows about the world. So author and writer are connected and yet the trick of character creation is to use your experience or to use somebody else’s. Because that is a weakness in a book; when all protagonists look autobiographical and even the women somehow seem like an expression of a male’s mind. So I consider these weaknesses in writing. So when I was writing Arzee in the early years, I was also jobless – deliberately so, self-willed – and I didn’t have very much going on in my life. I used to wander around the old cinemas; partly to research and partly to spend my own time. You know, just experiencing the world of vagabonds who don’t do anything. So, for a brief period, maybe, partly I shared the values of that world. So you never know in a book how much of it is yours, how much of it you’ve gone out and found and how much of it comes with the mixing of these elements. But finally that is the tension you have to put together. It’s best not to put a rigid boundary of these things.

One of the most striking features I noticed was that your blogposts are better paced and slightly more engaging as compared to Arzee The Dwarf? Is it because of the nature of writing that such a difference is visible?

You mean by book reviews?

Not just those, but your blogposts in general

Well, you know a blogpost, or even a review, is an expression of someone i.e. my thought. And while my book is also an expression of someone, inside that book is also an expression of Arzee’s thought. Also, a review doesn’t live in time, the way a novel or story does. A story has to speed up and slow down and it has to have those changes that register. While, conversely, an essay has to be smooth and has to have an even tone so that’s what works best for it. So it’s just the nature of the medium. And Arzee especially is a dramatic story and a lot of things happen so I had to change the pace a bit.

Which Bombay cinema hall bears the closest resemblance to Noor cinema?

(smiles) I’m not going to say that!

You describe the interior of Noor Cinema as “… air let in on a primordial evening and never let out again…” Is that a metaphorical comment on Bombay?

I hadn’t thought of it that way but now that you say it, it can be expanded outward to say how congested it (Bombay) is getting.

The reason I ask is because when I was at XIC in Bombay, we were shown a documentary about Bihari labourers who’ve come to the city to earn a living and one of them says that “ek baari aap Bombay mein aa gaya, toh vapas nahi jaa sakta”

Well its good you read like that and I’m impressed by this kind of connection. My precise intention in writing about that was when you go to an old, decrepit cinema which has a particular smell when you enter the hall. I wanted to say that it’s not just the inside of the hall but the entire cinema which is enclosed like this. But, yeah, you can sort of think of the world outside representing it. There is air but its thick, congested and doesn’t allow anybody in its way.

For that matter, there’s a lot of Bombay inside the novel…references to the movie Saathi, Arzee looking at the portraits of Waheeda Rehman, Nargis etc.

Also there are things like his travels around Bombay once he loses his job and roams around the city

Exactly, so were you influenced by any of the old movies?

No, there’s no specific reference to old movies in the book. There are old movies and new movies. The only thing I was particular about was that I shouldn’t make my book parasitical on Bollywood. Because I feel that Bollywood is so overpowering that unless you defend yourself against it, it just rushes over and then you’re only talking Raj Kapoor sang this about that so, although there are references to Bollywood, there’s none of this. There are passages where Arzee specifically sees or remembers something or starts randomly chatting about Saathi but I’ve tried to keep them under control. But, in a way, the book is about the most general experience of cinema. Arzee doesn’t particularly remember somebody saying a particular line. I wanted a particular style and language and Bollywood would over run it and ruin it.

Another thing that struck me while reading the novel was, when you talk about the closure of Noor cinema, it seems like a larger comment on vintage Bombay – places like Café Naaz and Irani cafes - which are shutting down. It seems as if old Bombay is fading away, giving way to the new glass-n-steel structures.

There’s no way to stop against change, finally. But, at the same time, there are some people who are stuck or caught up in a particular thing or world that the new has no attraction for them. And the pleasure of writing is to find out the tension between these two things. So, yeah, the book is partly about the people left behind by the changing world. And there are some other elements, references to capitalism; all the things that people are required to do some things differently from what they used. But it wasn’t my specific intention to make Arzee think about Café Naaz shutting down. For him the only thing is Noor Cinema. In fact, he doesn’t care if everything else shuts down.

You’ve set the novel in Bombay, a city which is fast-paced, bustling and moving at a rapid pace and yet there’s Arzee who’s in his own world oblivious to what’s happening outside. How difficult was it for you to carve out Arzee’s rather slow-paced, dreamy-eyed world from Bombay?

It wasn’t that difficult, rather, it was the attraction in the story because as any writer will tell you , the best way to work is through contrast. That’s when you generate tension, energy, colour etc. For instance, another contrast in the book is that Arzee looks up at people as he walks down the street but then once he enters the building he looks down from, what he calls a room in the sky. And since the room is on the top floor, he towers over everybody else metaphorically. So these kind of contrasts were attractive to me; they were tender and yet there was a joke in it. So in the same way pace in the novel was quite important to me. The first five chapters take a whole day and then there’s a chapter in the middle which takes ten days to go through. So there’s that kind of pace which Arzee loves because it’s insulated by the Noor from the world. And it’s insulated from the pace of Bombay by the Noor too, because when he goes into the streets, there are all these schoolchildren who run past him and he stands on the bridge with trains passing by every minute. But he knows at the back of his mind and sees the Noor when he’s going up there that that’s where it all ends.

That could also be a larger comment on people wanting to insulate themselves from the world. Especially, in the case of Bombay where I’ve come across a lot of people who say “yaar abhi bahaut ho gaya”

Yes, that’s a classic comment on Bombay where people say ‘I hate it’ and yet they would never leave

You’ve just finished editing an anthology after this book. How different does it feel editing an anthology as compared to writing a novel? Did you miss anything?

It was extremely relaxing after the pressures of writing a novel and there are two sides to my writing: writing about literature and writing a novel.

One comment on your writing is that its too erudite..

Well I’ll take that as a half-compliment but I think that what keeps me grounded is that I read a book by somebody else every week and try and pay close attention to that work even as I’m working on my own. Also, I feel as a writer you can never be above literature; you’re always part of a tradition which is bigger than you. And it is your job to look for a tradition and decide what elements are most interesting to you and what you can pass on to other people to share because if you live a life in literature, there are some things which you can give to people who don’t have the time to sift through things. They want an argument about why to read something. So for that reason I was very happy working on an anthology because there are lots of stories in it which people who follow Indian literature would never have read. Stories in translation, stories from the 60s and 70s, things that came out in journals or periodicals and it’s a chance to showcase my taste to the world without having to go through the pressures of composition myself . It’s very nice to do such things while you’re working on your own books because it takes you out of yourself and for a while you’re thinking about other writers and what you love about their work. Also, it’s a chance to learn because Indian literature is so big that no one of us has the full picture because there are so many languages

Also, as a writer I think it helps you lose your ego a little. For instance, if I hadn’t this work in the last five months, I would’ve finished my manuscript in January and kept waiting for May or June for my book to release. And here I forgot all about it, went to libraries and kept on reading. It keeps you busy and you can think things other than your own book.

On the first anniversary of your blog – The Middle Stage – you said that, given a chance, you’d like to do an expansive work of non-fiction. Any particular subject that you’d like to work on?

Yeah, but I won’t say it because it’ll be stolen then! There are a lot of non-fiction writers prowling around looking for ideas (laughs). Not that they don’t have any of their own, many of them have excellent ideas. In fact, I would say that one of the pleasures of working for Mint was that before Mint, I was primarily a fiction reviewer but at Mint, reviewing a book every week meant lots of non-fiction and the amount of things I’ve learnt about philosophy, literature, history, politics through the work of contemporary non-fiction writers…I owe them a lot, so at some point I’d like to be part of this but you know it requires a different kind of mindset and I don’t want to think of a novel in the one or two years that it takes to work on it.

Coming back to Arzee, don’t you think that there’s an Arzee in everyone of us in the sense that we all look for love, dignity and a good job…

Well one review about the book was titled ‘Arzee every man’ and I agreed with it at least up to the title. I didn’t want to make his circumstances as a dwarf so special that no one could participate in his miseries. They are the same troubles that everyone has and Arzee himself wants to be seen as just as everybody else; that is his main problem with life that he is stereotyped by his height. So I don’t think there’s anything – apart from specific issues of perspective – which readers wouldn’t know; like falling in love, feeling lonely in the world, being overcome by the senses and smells around you. Everything is at the universal level.

Will there be a sequel to Arzee The Dwarf?

Well, it’s always a good idea for a writer never to discuss a book if he’s not written a single word of it! I think if there ever was a sequel it will not take off from where this novel has ended. It will jump into a new point in time; maybe Arzee will be 40 or 50 years old and maybe I would be that age too! But definitely not for a few years. I have different projects in mind.

At a different time in life when I have a different view of things, that’s when a sequel is rich because it doesn’t rely or lean upon the original anymore. It’s got an identity of its own and yet people who have the memory of that character can, from the first page, make out what’s going on. So at some point there may be a temptation. But I wouldn’t like to write a bad sequel since sequels can be extremely dangerous.

On your blog, you mention about how Delhi has played a role while you were writing this novel and how your friends in this city read the manuscript. Cities do tend to play a key role while writing a book right? In this case, it was your foster city rather than your native Bombay.

Well, Bombay is the city around which the novel is centred around but the resources that I have now in my brain, for reading Bombay, I got from my education and friends in Delhi where I lived for a few years. I followed it up by going to England to study further and that was the beginning of it all; that gave me the brain, resources and temperament to sort of come back to Bombay and start writing. I’ve lived in Bombay before so it’s nothing but a Bombay book but yet a lot of my world lies in Delhi and I think I’m one of those rare people who love Bombay and Delhi equally and not complain about one.

While writing Arzee.., did you think of any other writer or did you follow a particular writer’s style?

No. In fact that might be someone’s idea when they’re starting out but if, midway through the novel, you’re still using that approach, it means you’re not doing anything original because it shows you haven’t got out of that starting block because that’s was the aid to you to start off with since you’re not confident enough, but it shows you still aren’t. Every book has its own specific kind of and sound to it and that you discover as you work and that’s inside the book waiting to be discovered. So while working on Arzee… most of the time I had to keep the same sound throughout the 185 pages of the book.

As a book reviewer yourself, how do you react to reviews of Arzee The Dwarf?

I would reverse the emphasis of your description of me. I started work on Arzee in 2005 which is around the time I began reviewing books seriously. It’s just that novel takes four years to write as compared to a book review which takes less time. So I was a writer who was doing nothing but writing book reviews while he was working on his first novel because he didn’t want to subject Arzee to the pressures of some other circumstance. So I wanted all my time to be free and this fitted very well with that sort of life. So I would call myself a writer who writes essays about books just like any other writer does. I just do it in a more structured way because I don’t have any other resources to make my living and I enjoy it very much. It’s a way for me to learn what’s going on, to read and to get paid for it. So therefore I have the same attitude to reviews as any other writer. I look forward to them but maybe, having written lots of reviews and upset lots of people, I’ve told myself not to react. Everybody can make mistakes; I may have made lots of them and you should give other people the right to do that as well. Literature is about interpretation, debate and about people arguing loudly till they reach some kind of conclusion. I think you should have the self-discipline to finish your book and let those be your last words.

About your blog, why have you just done four books interviews? Why not more? They are so wonderful to read.

I would love to do more because it’s a great chance to discuss the craft of writing with people. It’s just that there are the weekly reviews for Mint and there’s stuff in these interviews which papers may not publish. For instance, questions like ‘what is your favourite meal’. Also, it’s really hard work trying to write your own book, write different reviews for the blog and the newspaper and lead a normal life. You can’t shut yourself to the world. But yes, I realise what you’re saying. I enjoy doing those interviews because they help spread the word about writing. I’m one of those people who think that one of the best ways of learning is not through monologue but dialogue. So, many people ask me ‘why are those questions so long’ They’re long because they aren’t questions. They are attempts to start a conversation where I may have something to offer. I’d like to do some more, maybe even do a book of them.

You should because I, for instance, enjoy your non-fiction essays and books interviews more than the essays on fiction

Well that’s the reverse of what I think of myself. I’d say of the many purposes is of my blog, the first is to try and understand what works for fiction and what doesn’t and to try and pay close attention to the elements of fiction; narrative, point-of-view, metaphor, style. I try to make some sort of intelligent remark about how these work in a novel. Because I feel that sometimes we tend to read novels non-novelistically. We try and see is it significant? Is it about some big issue and what is its theme? These to me are not really the most important things about a novel. The most important things are the sentences and what it does with the story. It’s the words on the page which are more important rather than the over-arching idea of it. That can only be expressed through words. A novel is a conglomeration of sentences, words and paragraphs written in a particular way, speed and with regard to a particular end in mind. So I like reading through these kinds of ways and looking at what works and what doesn’t. That’s how I read a book.

So my first goal is to try and communicate to readers how more than anything else a novel is a serious way of thinking about the world and of thinking about people, relationships in a sort of non-pressurising way. For me that’s the excitement and the thrill of fiction

Is there a writer(s) or book(s) which has influenced the way you think and write?

Let me take an unusual name so that people go and actually order it. When I was 22 years old, and I feel ashamed saying this because it shows how I ignorant I was, I read a novel by Willa Cather, an early 20th century American writer, called The Professor’s House and till then my mind was so small that I couldn’t totally grasp the world of a novel. I would read novels but I never sort of had a higher view of it. I was reading for a literature degree and would struggle to write about novels. So I read this book and it has a tripartite structure and it’s about the life of a professor and his house. One of the great things about Willa Cather’s writing is her description of houses and places are great apart from people. And after you’ve finished reading it, you look at your own room and start imagining what you’ve just read.

So the first part is about the life of this professor in whose life many changes are going on after years of stability and he feels his health is slipping away. He remembers this student who died many years ago very tragically. Even in the third part is about the life of the professor.

It’s the middle part which is about the life of the student, Tom Outland, and it’s told in Outland’s voice. The professor decides that he’s not going to look at history anymore but is going to write a story Outland told him. Outland came from very far off and found an old Indian colony somewhere. It showed me what you can do with structure in a novel; the middle section is so different that it changes your entire view of the entire structure. Catha herself spoke about it a lot and I would read up on it because was at a place where any book wanted was available to me; at Cambridge where the University library is 13 floors tall.

So she spoke of it as trying to put a wedge in the middle of the story and that wedge is not an obstruction but something that raises all parts of it to a higher level. I’ve never forgotten the thrill of suddenly realising what could be done to a novel. And that’s what taught me to be an attentive reader and that’s why I love novels as compared to non-fiction. They make meanings at different levels.

Lastly, since the first half of 2009 has ended, which are the books you’ve enjoyed reading the most?

M G Vassanji’s travel book about India, A Place in India. It’s got a few passages about Delhi which I thought I knew about but it shows how conceited a writer can get. Sankar’s novel The Middleman (translated by Arunava Sinha) I read a couple of weeks ago. I have rarely read something so beautiful and moving. Daniyal Mueenuddin’s book, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, was a great book. Some of the stories are absolute gems and are unconventional since they don’t have a typical beginning-middle-end format. Mridula Koshy’s If It Is Sweet is also very good because she doesn’t pander to the reader at all.

In non-fiction, I read these two books by Utpal Dutt on theatre and cinema. All of us think of him as a comic figure from movies such as Kiraayedaar and Golmaal but he writes high above anybody else on movies. He was an extremely perceptive and engaged thinker about theatre and cinema. In Bengal, people know of him as a stridently Marxist actor, director and theatre person and sometimes had very narrow views but was always interesting to hear. So in these two books On Cinema and On Theatre there are pieces on film and theatre history in which you can actually visualise that same booming voice which you can visualise him speaking in. Also, some of the arguments are really very good. For instance, there’s not much criticism in India about the TV serial Ramayana except that it led to a right-wing movement. But Utpal Dutt thinks of it as a capitalist scam. He calls it a fairytale told by an alcoholic.

In addition there are great essays about Charlie Chaplin, Mrinal Sen and filmmakers we don’t even know about and, when you read about them here, you might want to find them in the archives. And even though he was a strident Marxist, he never gave into the banalities of socialist realism of alienating audiences and telling them higher truths about how to resist the bourgoeise and things like that. He knew the craft of storytelling and he knew how to exercise it brilliantly. I can’t recall a week recently where I had such fun reading these essays and marking them up. You might not agree with his politics all the time but he gave you such a different picture of the world which is missing in our commercialized world today.

1 comments: (+add yours?)

Richa said...

attended your lecture in eng audi,PU....
although i was not among the ppl whu had some queries regarding their reading and writing . . . but lecture was informative and motivational...enough to push my poetry talent hidden somwhere for years.
thanks, will read Arzee the dwarf..

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