For Chandrahas Choudhury, writing a story about a very short man turned out to be a mighty tall task. The protagonist of his debut novel, Arzee the Dwarf, is a Bombay film projector operator who must come to grips with his diminutive stature. Weaving the emotional tale was a delicate matter. “I really struggled to work out a narrative method that was both outside the character — the book is told in the third person — and yet managed to get inside his head so that the reader could experience the charge of his consciousness,” says Choudhury. “It took me close to four years to get that right.”
Choudhury’s patience paid off. Arzee was shortlisted for the 2010 Commonwealth First Book Award in England. It was released in the U.S. on October 8. To commemorate the book’s debut in America, the Delhi-based Choudhury will be hosting a talk at BookThugNation in Williamsburg on Sunday, October 27 at 7pm.
YACK Brooklyn connected with Choudhury for a Q&A while he was at the Ledig residency in Upstate New York earlier this month.
YACK: How did you go about developing Arzee? What was the thought process behind having a dwarf as the main character?
Choudhury: I guess I began thinking about the narrative possibilities of a story about a very small man after seeing someone like that cross the street in front of me in Bombay. And other parts of the story came to me bit by bit. That he’s quite good-looking, for instance, but sees it almost as a double joke being played on him. He’d prefer to be ugly. That he works in a cinema, where he can hide his embarrassment about his body under cover of a vast, enabling darkness, one in which he wanders around unnoticed, and which he controls from above, being the custodian of the one beam of light that ripples through it and brings the space alive.
YACK: How much research did you do for the book?
Choudhury: I didn’t do any research into the character — the point of literature is that you use your imagination to enter the minds of different kinds of human beings. But I did go into lots of old cinemas of Bombay to try and capture their atmosphere of mingled seediness, sadness, shabby grandeur, and comforting darkness.
YACK: Talk about Bombay as the setting for a novel. What qualities does the city have that make it ripe for storytelling?
Choudhury: Oh, everyone knows that the city ripples with a vast narrative energy because it’s such a cauldron of tensions and contrasts. And everyone’s getting in each other’s way, and subconsciously every resident is trying to be more of a Bombayite than the next — an example in the novel being not just Arzee, but also the gangster Deepak, who has a definite vision of what a Bombay gangster should be like and wants to play the part exactly so. The city has a more distinctive set of mores than any other one in India, which makes it a world unto itself, and also a remarkable emphasis on efficiency and a vast, permanent weariness. It’s remarkably beautiful, too, once you look past the grime. It has the mountains on one side, the sea on the other, temples and mosques and churches and even a beautiful blue synagogue.
YACK: How is India’s current political and social climate affecting the literature that is coming from there?
Choudhury: Well, writers always live in dialogue with the currents of their time, and try and supply ideas and stories that present alternative visions of what the world should be like. The Indian novel is a many-headed beast, there being about two dozen languages in India with their own novelistic traditions going back to the late 19th century, when the form first set down roots in India. The new literature gives Indian society a new point of view upon its strengths and weaknesses, on locked rooms and shadows in its past. Novelists are thinking about the consumer revolution of the last 20 years, about India’s new links with the world after decades of being a very closed society, about the new meanings that have attached themselves to wealth and poverty, success and failure, about gender relations in a fast-changing world.
YACK: Take me through your daily writing method. What times of the day do you work best? Anything in your method that’s unorthodox?
Choudhury: I usually work on composition three or four days a week, in the mornings between breakfast and lunch and then sometimes again in the evening after a long afternoon nap. Those are the times when I work best, but every night I also like to lie in bed and think about the next day’s work while I read some book that I know that I’m really going to like. Sometimes when my pace slows down, I set myself word counts, but usually it’s more like saying to myself, “I’m going to write a chapter a month.” I suppose it might be unorthodox that I don’t really make a plan for the book — I just drift along, making it up as I go along and then coming back later to cut and polish. I think some of my best thoughts while running in the evenings in Aastha Park in south Delhi, close to where I live, or while looking down at the world from a plane window.
YACK: What do you usually draw inspiration from? You’re on the road a lot — do you write down ideas immediately, say during a commute or if you wake up in the middle of the night with a thought?
Choudhury: I keep a notebook in which I put down all my ideas for the book I’m working on, and future ones. Yes, I like to travel — I find that being in a new place really wakes up your mind and your senses, and then going home does that to you all over again. Sometimes when I meet people who I really think are interesting, I might write down something they said, or something about the way in which they move from one point to another. The idea is not to lose the memory of when you’re really struck by something.
YACK: According to your Twitter feed, you recently spent a night in Penn Station after missing your train. What was that experience like?
Choudhury: Well, that was really bizarre. I missed the last train to Hudson, where I was at a residency, by a couple of minutes and then it was eight and a half hours for the next one, and I’d already spent the entire day on flights. I just thought I’d force myself to see it out, like a kind of endurance test, by breaking the night down into hours and sections. It was terrible to see the state of the people who hang out at Penn Station all night long not because they’ve missed a train, but because they have nowhere else to go, and seem indeed to have given up hope of ever changing their lives —and to see that they were, almost to a man, people of color. It’s hard to think of New York in the same way after that.
YACK: What’s next for your career?
Choudhury: I’ve been working on my second book the last four years — a much bigger book than Arzee, and written in a very different style. It’ll be finished in a few months.
YACK: What are your three most favorite books that take place in India or were written be an Indian author?
Choudhury: Three novels: Yashpal’s This Is Not That Dawn, Salma’s The Hour Past Midnight, and Amitav Ghosh’s River of Smoke.
YACK: And who are some new Indian authors that you’d recommend?
Choudhury: Among books by new Indian writers recently published in America, I’d recommend Sonia Faleiro’s Beautiful Thing and Rahul Bhattacharya’s The Sly Company of People Who Care.