Chandrahas Choudhury is a novelist and literary critic based in Delhi. He is the author of the novel Arzee the Dwarf (HarperCollins, 2009). The book was shortlisted for the Commonwealth First Book Award and appears this year in German and Spanish translations under the title The Little King of Bombay. The Bookwallah asks Chandrahas about Arzee the Dwarf and raises questions concerning the importance of the author’s own sense of place and the unique format and wisdom provided by novels.
Your novel Arzee the Dwarf is very firmly anchored in its sense of place; in fact it’s been described as a “love letter to Bombay”. Did you set out to create a portrait of Bombay at a specific point in time? What is it about this city that fascinates you the most?
I love the city: its different neighbourhoods, the energy and industry of its people, its sense of life as a pitched battle, its acute awareness of space, its many-voiced and multilayered history, the immense and often debilitating pressure it exerts upon human consciousness, the beauty of its hundreds of old buildings and its views of the sea, its dozens of relatively inexpensive pleasures,. Just the feeling of standing at the door of a local train at night, looking at things run past and feeling the wind on my face, sets my thoughts going. I’ve lived about half my life here, in two separate chunks, so I feel I can read Bombay in a way I can’t, for instance, read Delhi, where I went to university.
For all that is a concrete jungle, Bombay actually has great natural beauty: the sea and lakes and creeks and backwaters, hills and mountains. It’s India’s most democratic city: people of different classes and cultures mix more easily here than anywhere else in India. For all these reasons Bombay is a treasure trove of narrative material.
Arzee’s inner life is powerfully influenced by his dreams and aspirations, which are often in sharp contrast to his actual experiences. How important is the ability to dream, not only for your protagonists but for you in real life?
Very important. Whether in literature or in politics, imagination is the force that keeps realism honest, that allows us to see the world that we have is not the only world we could have. And there is something so private, so free about the imagination: it attaches itself to dreams that are different for every person. To me the imagination is both the source of literature, and one of its greatest subjects. For Arzee…well, you’ll have to read the book.
Would you ever write fiction, for example, set in rural India – away from the colour and rhythms of urban life? How much does the pace of a city influence your choice of language?
Yes, of course. It’s a writer’s duty to challenge himself continuously with new subjects, new formal problems. Of course an Indian city offers a visual and social world that’s enormously attractive for a writer of stories. As for my language, I always try and tint it with the worldview of my characters.
You recently spent time at a retreat in south Korea, working on your new novel. Is there anything you’d like to say about the new work? How did it affect you to be writing outside of India?
Arzee the Dwarf was written completely in Bombay, but since it came out I’ve had the good fortune to be able to travel a little, and also I’ve left Bombay for Delhi (where it can be easier to live). I won’t say anything about the new work now except that it’ll be completely different in style, subject and form from Arzee the Dwarf. I find that I enjoy working in different places very much. I return to Bombay for a few days every few weeks to refresh my memories and explore the spaces where I know the book is set.
You spend an enormous part of your life reading novels by other people, and reviewing them. What does the novel offer you that other art forms (including other forms of writing) cannot?
Well, if I read so many novels, it’s also to learn the different aspects of the craft! As for what I think philosophically about novels, I explain this in some detail in my talk “Ten Ways In Which Novels Can Change Your Life”, which I’m going to be giving a couple of times on the Bookwallah tour. Here’s an answer from my lecture summary:
“Novels, more than any other form of writing, offer a complete education in all the arts of the human self and the problems of human society. By reading novels, we are, through all the means and maneuvers of storytelling, given a contemplative education in the range and depth of human choice and human perspectives, and a vantage point on the human mind as it sparks and leaps through thought. The narrative structures of novels allow us to contemplate all the pleasures and problems of the human experience of time.
Novels demonstrate to us how doubt is just as useful a human virtue as certainty, and that the good life must respect both rationality and passion. By tracking experiences that lie behind closed doors or within human minds, they instill in us an awareness of the importance of the private life of individuals to the health of society. And by never offering any explicit advice (unlike self-help books), novels in fact offer the best kind of support to readers — the confidence that trusts the adult reader to make up his or her mind after considering all the evidence. The wisdom of the novel is not the wisdom of answers, but that of questions.”
You say that you love trains. What is it that you love about them? What are some of the things you’re looking forward to about this train tour?
Trains throw you together with people you’ve never met before in your life, and then suddenly you’re on this journey across a landscape and also with people. In India they’re one of the best ways of getting to know the country, especially because most trains have different classes of travel and they make for different kinds of experiences. I don’t think I ever feel more alive than when standing at the door of a train, watching the world go by: fields, rivers, villages, towns, streets, hills, ravines, quarries. (This activity is also one of the highest, but most competitive, pleasures of the local trains of Bombay, where people have developed an elaborate set of codes and gestures for working out exactly where they want to stand: right on the edge, one body-width inside, or hanging out of the door.) On the train tour we’re going to travel extensively through the Indian south, where I spent my childhood (I was born in Hyderabad and then lived briefly in Chennai). I’m looking forward very much to an extended experience of that state of combined rest and motion that’s so peculiar to train travel, and also to figuring out the “train personalities” of my travel companions. Literature, politics, and wheels – that should lead to something intense!