Despite his lack of inches, Arzee is on the verge of achieving the two things he most wants out of life - to become the head projectionist of the Noor Cinema and to find a wife. But, as the poet tells us, the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley. And Arzee's dream is about to be shattered when the owner of the run-down cinema decides to close it. This is the story of two weeks in Arzee's life as he faces a future that has suddenly become dark and uncertain.
Light on plot, but long on characterisation, this is a deliciously bittersweet little comedy. Arzee has been happy in the Noor, nestled in the womb-like darkness of the projection room. He counts the images of the Bollywood starlets whose posters line the walls of the cinema as friends and is proud of being in charge of the machine that projects the magical beam of light onto the screen. He might now be relying on his mother to bargain for a wife for him but he has known the joy of true love - a love lost when his prospective father-in-law objected to the match. And he hopes to rediscover some of the sweetness of that love with his new wife, once she has been found. But when the cinema closes, he will lose not only his job but his hopes of marriage. It is time for Arzee to reassess his dreams and try to take control over his own destiny.
As we follow Arzee through the streets of Bombay (not Mumbai in this book), we meet a host of characters, each brought vividly to life; Arzee's mother, always favouring Arzee over his brother because of Arzee's dwarfism, a staunch and sometimes overbearing protector; Deepak, the not-very-hard hardman pursuing Arzee for a small gambling debt - the two of them locked in a cat-and-mouse game where it's not at all clear which is the mouse; Dashrath, the taxi driver who dispenses philosophy as he drives; and Monique, Arzee's beautiful and rather nebulous lost love.
The characterisation of Arzee himself is excellent. The narrative is third-person but always seen through Arzee's eyes. While we get to see the difficulties and mockery he's had to face as a result of his height, Choudhury neither makes Arzee an object of pity nor does he portray him as a hero. He's just a flawed man - bombastic, prone to self-pity and annoyingly talkative; but he's also a dreamer who, even at the darkest moments, clings to his dreams.
Choudhury's prose flows smoothly throughout, with some beautifully phrased imagery, while the dialogue between Arzee and the various other characters provides much of the humour. Bombay is vibrantly portrayed - the Bombay of ordinary people leading ordinary lives. Though there is depth and even some darkness in the story, the overall tone is light with almost the feeling of a fairytale to it. I found I became more and more enchanted with the book as I read and by the end was fully invested in Arzee's hopes and dreams. Something of an unexpected delight, this is one of those rare books that makes me smile each time I think of it.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, NYRB.