I approached "Arzee the Dwarf" with some trepidation. I have long admired the author, and I liked him when I met him, and I really wanted to like the book. Yet books are tricky things, and readers are even more unpredictable, so I was trying not to expect too much.
One reason I hadn't expected a lot from the book was that the protagonist is a very short man who works in an old cinema in Mumbai. There was nothing about the protagonist that I could identify with: not his height and how it separated him from other people or his ensuing defensiveness, not the surroundings in which he lived or in which he worked. All of that seemed like a different world: how could I expect to identify with, sympathise with, root for someone like that?
Yet, just as in a fairy tale or fantasy you find yourself sympathising with the oddest of creatures in the most unlikely surroundings, I found myself sucked into Arzee's world. I wasn't quite sure whether I liked Arzee (he seemed much too sorry for himself, for one thing), but I found myself extremely interested in what happened to him. He isn't a hero, but he's human - self-absorbed and flawed and with hopes and dreams that he never quite lets go of even when he seems to be in despair.
As I started the book - and even before, when I heard excerpts read out - I was a little distracted by what I perceived to be the author's way of using four words where two will do. ("The Noor was Arzee's home in the world. His days were here, his work here, his past here, and his future here.") Yet as I read on, these somewhat poetic descriptions and pronouncements were what I probably liked best about the book. They lifted Arzee's story from the pathetic and the mundane into if not quite the sublime, at least the general - his fate seemed bound to that of other humans, including me the reader.
There were things I didn't quite like in the book - the character of Monique, for instance, seems like a myth, never fully brought to life. I suspect the author meant it that way, because that's how Arzee sees her. While the book is narrated in the third person, throughout we are looking at the world through Arzee's eyes.
I also think some of the resolution at the end was a bit too pat. But the author smartly abstains from overplaying his hand: he leaves Arzee - and the reader - looking at the light at the end of the tunnel without leading us there, so that we're not sure whether Arzee reaches the end of his trials or faces an incoming train.
One thing I loved about this book is the delicate balance between literary prose and colloquial conversation, between age-old dilemmas of life and love and the modern setting, including the use of technology. (Most of the characters have mobile phones, but they never interfere with the story, they only carry it forward.) Arzee speaks as you and I would - yet through his thoughts, the author sometimes indulges in eloquent prose that is a delight to read.
Let me quote praise from the back cover of the book, as it is phrased better than I can do it:
"In a time of starved, anameic prose, the rich, roiling vocabulary of Choudhury's novel is one delight; its combination of droll humour, pathos, romance and pragmatism another."
In short, go read it. I recommend it highly.