Chandrahas Choudhury’s novel Arzee The Dwarf tells the story of the troubles of a very short and very bitter man in a very big and very frightening city, Mumbai. In this exclusive excerpt, Arzee is seen on his way to work. He is exultant because he has just been promoted to head projectionist of Noor, the theatre at which he works, and is looking forward to the day he will be married.
City beats: Much of the book’s backdrop is Grant Road, Mumbai. Ashesh Shah / Mint
(Author’s note: the phrase “the room in the sky” is a reference to the projection room of the Noor.)
As Arzee went skipping down the staircase, he stopped on the first floor to peep into the corridor, but there was only a cat there, prowling with its tail raised. Arzee grinned and went on his way.
All the way down he could hear the clamour, and when he arrived on the narrow street, he found himself swamped by shrieking schoolchildren in their whites and navy blues, hurtling past after being ejected from the gates of the school at the other end of the street, just by where he lived. The sight of children always dismayed Arzee. Although they were no more than ten or eleven, they were all taller than him. Their smooth cheeks seemed to be laughing at his stubbled blue, their growing limbs flexing and showing off in front of his stopped ones. Their curious looks disconcerted him—they couldn’t be allowed to roam like this! He stopped till the head of the storm had passed, leaving trails of stragglers licking icecreams, trading marbles, or flying paper rockets. He walked past these last ones, meeting their stares with stares till they looked away. In the grey sky, clouds seemed to be idly grazing like sheep, and the rumbling from behind them was curiously soothing.
“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’s something’s better than nothing. They told me to be thankful that I wasn’t an orphan, or blind, 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.” He raised his arms towards the vastness above, and felt all his life’s tribulations redeemed by this moment. “Make way, all, because I’m coming! And I’ll keep talking to myself, I’ll keep the words coming. How hot these words! Today I am made anew.”
Exultant, he felt pity for the friends he had just left behind, because their lives were so small and narrow, and their humdrum world had none of the peaks and troughs of his. They lived in a middle zone, and never knew what it was to really feel something. And from his friends, his mind moved now to his mother— his old mother, who like all mothers still thought of him as a child, and worried that he was suffering if even a fly came to rest on his arm. How pleased Mother would be to hear this news! Her happiness would top his own, and crown it.
And, roused, he began to think of the wife who was coming for him, the girl with hips, breasts, and long hair, bangles and earrings, who would change his life from the moment she set foot inside his little home. His brother Mobin would have to move out of the room they shared between them, and in would come his wife—that certainly was a great bargain! Arzee laughed aloud when he imagined Mobin’s frame, long as his own was short, stretched out on the drawing-room sofa, his feet sticking out resentfully, while he, Arzee, took his pleasure inside. Food cooked in a different way—he was tired of the work of his mother’s free and sloppy hand. A new kind of talk at home—he was bored of the same half-dead conversations about Mother’s medicines and the quality of the vegetables in the market. And a body coming to rest next to his at night, and then all the lights off, and someone close, soft, breathing up and down, waiting to be touched, in all that darkness and silence, by walking fingers. He’d take it! He thought of the five thousand that was the margin between the head projectionist’s salary and his own, and all the little satisfactions that were now in his power: beads and necklaces for his mother, and bangles and trinkets for his wife, and something for Mobin, and peppermints and candied cherries, white shirts from the export-reject shops, a belt with a dragon buckle, tickets for the lottery, crates of mangoes in summer, fat fish, plump chickens, perfume and deodorant spraying away! It seemed to him that the whole world was available for sale in chunks of five thousand. And his mind kept wheeling, whirling, and sometimes he thought some thoughts and sometimes it was the thoughts that seemed to think him.
He passed the grey building which was his home, and then the empty school, its blue gate being locked by the watchman. Instead of going on straight, he turned into a passage between two buildings, so narrow it was almost invisible. It was a kind of wasteland where everyone threw rubbish which no one then cleared. A broken toilet seat was lying here, and a red plastic chair with three legs. The ground was covered with a squelchy slop of plastic bags, vegetable peelings, and eggshells. Long grasses had sprouted up near the walls, carrying bits and pieces of garbage within their limbs like diseased flowers. Little frogs the same colour as the muck were hopping from one spot to another with springy leaps, and becoming invisible once again as soon as they landed. Arzee’s shoes sank into the wet earth, and when he looked back to see if anyone had seen him enter, he could only see his footprints following him all the way in. He arrived now at a low stone wall, on the other side of which thin whispering sounds could be heard. He hitched up his trousers, hoisted himself up onto the wall, using the crevices as footholds, and arrived at the top. He looked down into the silky waters.
Yes, there was a nasty stench here, but also a lovely still and calm. No one bothered to come out here, and all the pleasures of the place were just for him. As if to mark his arrival, a milky sun had come out over his head, and his reflection in the sewer was backlit, as if there was a halo around him. He studied himself closely, and saw what he already knew: that his forehead was high, his hair wavy and thick, his lips full and pink, his black eyes somewhat crabby and disconsolate. He was good-looking—there was no doubt about that. But what of it? Looks weren’t just about shapes and colours, but also about size. Even in his reflection there was something irredeemably odd and stunted about him, like a thought that had come out all wrong in the speaking. The acrid whiff of the sewer was so strong that it felt as if his nostrils were burning. But even so, fish or other forms of life—algae, perhaps, or microbes—seemed to inhabit it, making the surface bubble in little spasms. There was a kind of peace to be had in watching the water go by. Arzee thought of that lost one, that past one, whose current had fallen away from his, and how she’d missed this day in his life. She’d gone, but he’d carried on, and learnt to be strong, and now he was all right, only he thought of her sometimes. He spat into the water, as if expelling the thought.
How strange! It seemed to Arzee that somebody was calling out his name: ‘Arzee!’ ‘AR-zee!’ ‘AR-ZEE!’ In fact, what with all the echoes of this bounded retreat, it seemed as if the voice was coming out at him from the inky deeps below him. Arzee looked around, disoriented. Perhaps it was a trick of his brain: his brain did sometimes play games with him.
But somebody was calling out his name. And Arzee recognised that voice—he’d been trying to avoid the person whose voice it was! He turned slowly, dreading the sight. A familiar gaunt figure was advancing up the alley towards him, hungry as a hound dog and just as alarming to look at. Arzee trembled. What an idiot he was! At the exact moment when he was being hunted for, he had to be standing here in a place cordoned off on three sides, his figure sticking out halfway into the sky! He darted left and right like a bird, but his agitation was useless.
The figure advanced further and, looking up at Arzee, said in a hoarse voice:
‘Got you at last, you little bastard! Don’t think you can hide too long from Deepak! Even when you hide, it’s actually Deepak who’s giving you permission to hide, waiting for you to get your act together. Keep hiding and skulking like this, and he sniffs you out and comes over to collect, and then either you pay, or else you really pay. Now come, my little birdie. Get down from your perch and tell me: where’s my money?’
Chandrahas Choudhury is the book critic of Lounge. His debut novel, Arzee The Dwarf, will be out in the last week of May.
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