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Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Arzee the Dwarf by Chandrahas Choudhury

Summer read with Ferris.

Indian Literature

*Shortlisted for the Commonwealth First Book Award
*Setting: Bombay, 2007 (60 years after India's Independence of 1947)

Main Characters
Arzee - Protagonist, a 28 yrs old dwarf. Currently, if not always, experiencing severe identity crisis. Has worked at Noor movie theater as projectionist for 10 yrs. Finds out that the parents who raised him are not his biological parents (at 28 yrs old), and that his birth name is JOSEPH. Arzee's biological parents were Christian's.  Arzee was raised by adoptive parents as a non-committed Hindi (yet adoptive parents mixed w/ Christian [father?] & Hindi [mother] backgrounds). This news heightens his identity crisis. Arzee has a low self-opinion and a self-defeating attitude. 'Woe is me' mindset. He does not trust others or himself. Feels he has been, "misguided by his imagination", "nothing is as he thought." p. 63: "I've been deceived in life and deceived by my own imagination."  p. 65: "I'm a fool."
Phiroz - Head Projectionist at Noor for 30 yrs, 70+ yrs old, 1 daughter, Renu, widower.
Deepak - Bookie Scab & all around criminal, mid-aged. Does not allow Arzee to feel sorry for himself. Esp. when he connects Monique with Arzee: p. 181: "Be a man, & if it is bad news take it on the chest, or you'll be a baby all your life."
Monique - Arzee's former girlfriend, hair dresser, a Christian from birth.
Rajneesh Sharma - Owner of Noor movie theater & a recluse.
Daswrath Tiwari - A friend of Arzee's, although he was not a main character. Makes a brief appearance, but is important to author's theme of identity. Maintains a commanding philosophy of life & self-identity that he shares w/ Arzee (pp. 57-64). H is a cab driver who uses his advanced language skills to write dialogues for movies part-time. Has a wife and 7 children (all boys) he sees in the summer for 3 weeks. They live in another area of India, outside of Bombay. (All boys born in January since all conceived during his brief 3 wk break.- A little fun side humor by author, while relaying truth of many Indian lives at that time.)
Arzee's mother - Raises Arzee as her own, despite fact she was Hindi & he was a Christian orphan. Arzee finds this out at 28 yrs, which further adds to his identity crisis. Mom treats Arzee differently than Mobin because of his vulnerability as a dwarf.
Mobin - Arzee's half brother, where until now at 28yrs, Arzee thought was his blood brother.

Quotes & Thoughts
* Overall, Arzee speaks of the human condition as it relates to our individual solitary lives - the hopes, dreams and aspirations that give our lives meaning.  Arzee's dwarfism symbolizes the diminutive and vulnerable parts of our psyche which we must keep in check. No matter how we choose to respond to these feeling, with or without us, life moves ahead. Sometimes, we will be unexpectedly surprised, other times disappointed.

Maybe there was a little moralizing, but it worked. It was only when Arzee reached out, got to truly know those already in his life, began to listen, help and comfort them, did he find he was not alone with his problems, and learned that people are not always as they seemed. As a result, he began to grow as a person, expanding his world, which made him feel emotionally stronger and taller.

*Choudhury writes like a landscape painter, depicting picturesque imagery of  his characters, atmosphere, space, and time. The imagery portrayed are mostly of a dark, ugly, and deprived life, yet is infused with a sense of beauty somewhat like a Dorthy Lange  photograph during the Dust Bowl era.

p.3    Arzee seemed to float through night-worlds day and night.

p. 3-4    The dirty curtains at the windows were drawn, and a naked bulb hanging from a wire cast a sticky light over the scene, which resembled the sanctum of a temple at the moment when the most pious devotees gather around the deity after everyone else has gone, and speak in hushed voices. Tinny music was being forced out of a transistor lying on its side, supplying the beat that improved the taste of the cheap spirits glowing in glasses. A leaky water pipe was whispering under the sink, as if it were privy to a secret it could never forget, and behind the bed in the corner could be heard the persistent scraping of a mouse that had invited itself into Shinde's home.

p. 4    Arzee - As he leaned back to reach into his trouser pocket, his head, which was large in comparison to his body, retreated from the light, and for a moment he was only a nose jutting out above a pair of pursed lips and a craggy chin...then his face reappeared whole again, fierce now with its bushy eyebrows and bright beady eyes.

*Arzee, is trying to change his habits in order to portray himself as a stronger man, not only to others, but for himself. He also wants to control himself, especially what he says, because he is always, "jumping the gun", so to speak, telling others things that have not yet evolved, but more that he hopes will come about, but do not always work out that way. Then, he feels foolish, gets angry w/ himself, thereby validating his negative self-image.

p. 5    Yet his old fears are not so easily shaken off – they seeped into you, and became a part of you.

p. 5-6    Arzee does not want to “get ahead of himself”, yet constantly does. e.g., Telling friends he is being promoted at the Noor because Phiroz is retiring, and that he is getting married p. 8: “As soon as Arzee had uttered these word, he wished he had reined in his tongue. But it was too late now. He'd just gone with the good feeling and said it!”. Arzee desperately wants to be the head projectionist at the Noor, and get married. He eagerly anticipates both, yet there are no definite plans and nothing has been officially discussed. Arzee is so excited at the prospect of these two dreams, that he jumps the gun and tells his friends as if it were fact. He is constantly getting himself into these uncomfortable situations that ultimately make a fool out of him, especially when later he finds these desired truths are not truths at all.

p. 7    Arzee's friends ask in jest why he does not marry Phiroz's daughter, Renu. Arzee has shared what little information he knows about Renu, whom he has never seen or met, but has described to his friends as, “sure to be ugly as a dog, that is why her father's still stuck with her”. Only to find out later (p. 150) that she is a friendly and lovely girl inside and out. “I'm a fool, and I proved it yesterday.” Arzee cannot help jumping to false conclusions no matter how many times he is wrong. He is aware of the problem, but as of yet, has done little to overcome it.

*p. 6    Example of author's character study: "It was hard to believe that very soon Phiroz's thick-set, forward-bent figure, a jute bag on one shoulder, the lips mumbling what only the ears could hear, would no longer be seen entering and leaving the cinema at exactly the same hour each day – hard to imagine that his balding and professorial head, the oblong cranium nearly bare except for two strips of hair above each ear the size of combs, would no longer be seen sticking out of the window on the top floor as he studied the color of the sky between reels, or tossed grain to the pigeons doing skips and turns on the window sill."

*An example of author's style of writing. It tells so much about the people and the environment they live in.:

p. 29    Although he rarely took a train, he loved to admire the long sinuous lines and the expanse of the railways, the stationary and the moving elements. The gleaming tracks that came all the way from distant Virar, the asbestos roof pocked with holes and bits of rubbish being sifted by birds, the little figurines of people in their ill-fitting clothes standing in slack poses on the platform ...- there was something vivid & life-giving about this scene...A train came in, moaning and swaying, disgorged a hundred people, who instantly seemed to be dragged up the stairs by some invisible force, and swallowed up some others. 

*Example that shows Arzee's negative attitude towards himself and his woe-be-gotten-life:
p. 30    -Nothing's ever simple or easy in this life of mine...
            -My working day begins in the afternoon, that's the thing - so there is a lot that can go wrong between the two points.
            -I should get him on my side if I can, because he might be of use to me later on.
*p.61- 62    Dashrath to Arzee: "What I'm thinking is, do we live the life that's given to us, or, said Dashrath, lifting his saucer up into saucer-skies, do we really live a kind of dream life. We are to be found in the present, yes – walking, sleeping, working. But all the while, aren't we really living in the past and the future? I drive my car down Peddar Road and through Worli, but I'm thinking of next April, when it'll be time to go home, or how the children will have grown bigger - of the green stalks that must be coming up in the fields right now. Isn't our inner life really a life of the imagination? Isn't that what makes you and me, as much as our names, our families, our place in this world?"
     "It's true," said Arzee, "and that’s the part of ourselves that no one else knows about. It's like a story that we're always making up for ourselves from reading signs in the world. And we take hope from it."
     "That's right. Man is in chains everywhere!" said Dashrath, warming to his subject."The only thing that keeps him alive is his imagination. His feet are always shackled to the earth, yet he flies on the wings of his imagination. He is convicted by reality, and pardoned by the imagination."

ME: What is real, our thoughts or the outer world in which we are perceived by others?

*p. 62    Dashrath to Arzee: (which made me laugh because of the truth and irony it reveals.) “What is love? The loved one is a person just like you and me, a person with a hundred faults and failings. But briefly he or she is transformed into someone utterly beautiful, perfect – a being from the heavens! Love is the the true home of the imagination. Requited love - that is the paradise raised from nothing but a pair of synchronized imaginations!”

ME: Do we ever really know a person fully since we are never privy to his or her entire thought process? I enjoyed Choudhury's examination of this concept. It is something I have thought about often.

*p. 62     Dashrath: “What is God but the imagination? It is fruitless to debate whether God exists because the existence of God can never be proved or disproved. But till the day that man's sense of God exists, God exists. What is our sense of ourselves? Mostly a fiction! Which one of us is really the person he thinks himself to be?”

Me: With regard to our self-image -  Do we truly know our selves? Others know and understand us by our outer-self, but we identify with our internal self (the soul?). Can a person ever fully know others or even oneself in the true sense of the word? We think we do, but if we do not always respond to others in a manner that reflects what we are thinking, or do what want to do, are we really being our self, and is that self the real self -the one that others see and identify with- or does the answer lie somewhere in between the two? 

*p. 63    Arzee w/ his continued poor self-image and attitude towards his life: “imagination is the deceiver” because he has “imagined people to be something, and they turned out to be something else...I have been doubly deceived in life – deceived by life, and then by my own illusions. I can't trust anybody now, not even myself – such is the place to which my imagination has led me. My imagination doesn't keep me alive, it torments me...I know now that if there's anybody I must watch above all, it's myself.”

Arzee does not trust himself - an uncomfortable, unsettling way to live. This is a particularly poignant part of the book, reflecting Arzee's  feelings of inadequacy.

*p. 79    Arzee and Phiroz have worked together for 10 years. After all this time, they have never attempted to get to know one another outside of work. Until then, they only discussed work related duties and thoughts. After the existence of the Noor, and thus their jobs, are threatened, do they make an effort to do so. They wind up establishing a thoughtful report. Arzee also meets Phiroz's daughter, Renu, and finds out that, not only is she a beautiful person inside and out, she is blind. 

Concept of work and meaning explored. Symbolically and literally, Arzee feels his life has meaning mostly through his work. The Noor being a large and tall building, and Arzee working in the projection room on the top floor where no one else other than workers are allowed, gives him a sense of power, making up for the lack of physical height by which others define him. And, now, since the Noor may be closing, his sense of value is greatly diminished.

Projection booth, dark and comforting to Arzee - like a womb.. 

p. 120    Arzee believes in portents and omens, hidden meanings and correspondences. He looks towards these to guide him, however rational or irrational.

pp.    Symbolism: the wall of women starlets in an interior Noor hallway. Arzee has a “report” with them. He finds relief, via his fantasies, which give him a false and temporary sense of masculinity. Masculinity is important especially important to Arzee, whose outside world is continuously emasculating him by name calling, jokes and prejudice.

p.    140 Monique, Arzee's old girlfriend. When Arzee stood next to Monique, he felt validated as a normal human being.  
What a stir was created when on the street leading to the Noor there appeared on a Monday afternoon the familiar everyday figure of Arzee, but with – with a beautiful woman walking alongside! He was no longer single! Eyebrows inched upward all around, over eyes that met other eyes across the street. Conversations froze in mid-sentence, and everything fell so silent that people cloistered in their offices sprang to their widows to see what was wrong."

Imagine being in this position for a lifetime, where society turns you into a pitiable creature. 

Depak barks at Arzee for feeling sorry for himself – to not care or focus on what others think. He is not moralizing so much as giving Arzee perspective. In short, get over yourself and live.

Chapter 9, Being a Bottle:
pp. 105-126    Choudhury speaks of societies tendency to stereotype dwarf's. Choudhury symbolizes this bias through Arzee's employment with an ad agency.  The agency uses Arzee's dwarfism to advertise soda. It is Arzee's job to run around in a rubber pop-can costume advertising their cold soda on the hot streets. A tall person could easily play this role, yet that would not catch the eye as much as a funny little dwarf running around in a soda can outfit.

Yet, Choudhury does not let the reader feel too sorry for Arzee by reminding us that there is always someone in a worst situation. Another dwarf interviews for the same position at the same time as Arzee. Pg. 110: Where Arzee is mortified at the thought of wearing & running around in a pop can costume, the other dwarf is just happy to have a job. “Yes, yes, I'll do it. I've got debts to pay! Bills to pay! My mother's in hospital. And I haven't eaten for days, sir, I haven't eaten for days! O Kali Maa, my prayers have been answered!” He is so poor that his clothes are tattered, he is dirty and needs bus fare from the employer to get back home.

Choudhury flips back and forth, showing both sides of the story: Pg. 111: ''Work is work, he kept counseling himself...It's just another job.' But it was hard for him to be persuaded of this when it was clear that the suit was his, the work was his, only because he was a dwarf. From the wings of the great beam to the prison of this bottle – how swiftly he had fallen!” (The great beam meaning the Noor.)

*pg. 125:    I've often thought that...I've seen that...there's no sympathy in this kindness. We call ourselves human – we do. But humanity is exactly what we're struggling to achieve.

ME: So true. You would think, with all the problems that have occurred as the result of inhumane treatment, society would work together to end cruel behaviors; that we would treat others as we would want to be treated. Just because we have a choice, does not mean we must embrace the negative.

p. 161-165    Turning point: Mother reveals long kept secret to Arzee - that he is not her birth child. He was adopted. They were neighbors to Christian parents who died at sea. Having been unable to conceive a child herself at that time, they took on Arzee as their own. His real name was JOSEPH. Arzee: "Nothing - not a single thing - was as he'd thought it to be, and when he emerged from those few moments of wandering, he had become a stranger to himself...He was not Arzee. 'Arzee' was just a story he'd been told about himself...And he was a dwarf. Not even Arzee the dwarf. Just no one the dwarf. Was there anybody else in the world like he? No! It was only him."

          p. 167   "Clearly the truth had always lived just below the surface of the fiction.. You couldn't
          make brothers by decree, any more that you could get the sun and the moon to rise at the same

          p. 168   "Where was Joseph? Was he just the surface, and Joseph the core? He the visible

          shell, and Joseph the kernel in the dark? He was two being within one, two names, three
          religions, four parents - he was a piece of patchwork made with the wildest needle.
          .. .-his very Arzee-ness was now a ramshackle building, just like the Noor! His life, his self
          were a vast work of the imagination - of Father's, of Mother's, his own - and that was the only
          way in which it had been made livable, bearable. he was not Arzee, and yet he couldn't be
          anyone but Arzee - the graft had been in place for too long.
          p. 169   And if they hadn't taken him in, where would he have grown up? In an orphanage,
          wearing hand-me-downs, eating watery and greasy meals, growing wild on the charity of
          society...What if it was the trauma of losing his parents that had stunned his limbs?

          p. 170   And in that case Arzee hadn't been a dwarf to begin with, needn't have been a dwarf -

          it was circumstances that had made him so!...No one could have ever had a life like this. It was
          only him.

          p. 173   Arzee: Nothing can trouble me anymore, because I've already seen the worst.

p. 172    He saw that his life was to be a journey, and that there was no home for him anywhere except in the hut of his own crooked self.  (Arzee)

P. 175    Arzee mentions suicide once before, and again: "Arzee! AR-zee! ARZEE! This must be the thundering that suicides heard in their heads as the approached the moment of passage, the rising of their name being called out by the clamorous spirits on the other side."

P. 181     I can't keep looking for crutches, else I'll keep falling. (Arzee to Deepakbhai)

p. 183    Below the giant clock of Bombay Central Station, its hands moving heavily as if with the accumulated weight of time..."

p. 184    That was the miracle of art - it stayed evergreen, kept speaking and speaking to people.

p. 185    Re: Arzee on bus in Bombay, looking out the crowds of people, all in a hurry:" ...swiftly, in a hurry, like horses with blinders, not looking nor noticing, trying to outpace their watches..."

p. 186    Arzee thinking about Phiroz:  " Yes, somewhere within this frame, hidden amongst thousands of people like a rare tree in a forest, old Phiroz was surely pacing up and down right now with a cup of tea in his hand..."

p. 193    Arzee, while watching a movie in the regular theater section for the first time, befriends a man who is crying. Arzee tells him about his love for this theater and offers to take him up to the projection room. Arzee finds out it is the owner, Rajaneesh Sharma, whose sons have been involved in the closing of the NOOR. After talking to Arzee and hearing him praise the NOOR, Rajaneesh decides his sons will have to wait until he dies before giving up the NOOR. You are also left with the impression that he will make Arzee an important part of the NOOR in the very near future:

          p. 194    Perhaps they are wrong when they say this place must be shut down. Maybe memories
          mean more than money. Maybe the past means more than the future....Your kindness is noted,
          in this time when no one thinks of their fellow man, and it won't go unrewarded, God willing."

          Arzee thanks R. Sharma & tells him to: " Follow your heart, sir, not your head. And everything
          will be all right. Love is never wrong." 

Arzee is going off to visit Monique, with the hopes of getting back together and becoming engaged. His newly found optimism spreads to Phiroz when, at his daughter's wedding he tells Phiroz:

p. 200    "Don't be sad that your daughter is leaving. Life is too short to be sad. Everything will turn out all right, you'll see."

In the end, things are looking good for Arzee. If Monique says yes, he will be married, and the Noor will not close. In fact, he will have a promising job there.

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