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'Aspiring writers shouldn't stick to reading Paulo Coelho'

July 07, 2009 16:40 IST
Oriya by descent, but having grown up all over the country, Mumbai-based literary critic and blogger Chandrahas Choudhury always knew he would write books someday.

Today, after three years of dedicated work, his first book Arzee the Dwarf has finally hit the bookshelves. Telling the story of a physically impaired young man who has spent his life being ridiculed and looked upon as a freak, the story is in turns funny and heart-breaking; it takes the reader into his head to explore the helplessness, insecurities and aggression that are born of circumstance.

In a chat with Insiyah Vahanvaty, Choudhury talks about his background, the idea behind Arzee the Dwarf, and what it takes to become a published novelist.

Tell us a little bit about your background.

I'm originally Oriya, but I grew up all over India because my parents were in transferrable jobs. I have a younger sister who is now a senior correspondent with Hindustan Times in Delhi. Until last week, she had a bigger profile than me, but now we're competing (laughs). I did my graduation from Delhi University and then went to Cambridge in London. When I came back, I started working as a journalist for Cricinfo.com. I opted for a job there because like any young Indian male, I loved cricket, and was hoping to make a career out of my hobby. But once I started working, I realised how much time one wastes in offices -- going to the office, saying hello to everybody, waiting for your cup of tea, waiting for lunch, feeling sleepy...(laughs).

I did that for two years and then started writing a weekly book review for Mint. That's the only other thing I do right now -- apart from the occasional travel piece for various publications. In 2005, I started my blog -- it's a blog about books. Most of what I do has to do with books -- either writing them or writing about them! The blog kept me going because it gives me a direct audience. To this day I write a weekly piece on it about some book and a strain of thought that it brought about. I started writing my blog the month I left my job, because it was a way of still being part of the literary world. And it was nice to have an audience who you could have a direct conversation with. Also, when you write a review for papers, they edit it, sometimes chop off large portions...it's very frustrating. This gave me total control. Also, whatever's in cyberspace is not dated -- it's there forever, the minute someone Googles it.

In the build-up to Arzee, I've written many short stories (fiction) that have appeared in different publications. It's a good way to polish your craft.

What inspired you to write Arzee?

I always knew I wanted to write books, but it was just a matter of being ready. And for most of the time I was writing Arzee, I still wasn't ready. But you can only manage it by actually doing it. That's why I quit my job in 2005 -- because I wasn't really satisfied with journalism, and I felt I was ready to start my book. Also, I don't have a nature that enjoys being shut up in the office, so it's good that I left when I did. I planned for a year, lived off my savings and started work on Arzee.

Initially, there were many dead ends and frustrations. If you read the book, you'll find it has a particular tone to it, which mixes laughter and sadness. That wasn't coming properly in the beginning. It was coming in bits and pieces, but not as a constant. That's why such a short book took three years to complete -- because you have to be sure you have achieved what you set out to do.

Why Arzee? The concept of a dwarf is so unusual.

Well, as any storyteller will tell you, unusual is always good. The reason why many authors choose unusual protagonists or protagonists that are at the margins of the world they occupy; it's because that gives you a chance to take a critical look at that world. You can't have a protagonist who has a complacent view of the world, or a view that is not sharp.

About Arzee, well, the story is that I was in an auto-rickshaw one day, and I saw a very short but good-looking man cross the road. And that got me thinking. Here was this handsome dwarf -- did his looks make things easier for him or was it like a double joke that made it harder? He wanted not to be noticed and yet people looked at him and thought, 'hey, just a couple more feet and imagine what he could have been!' So that got me thinking about what the world must look like from his perspective, and how he would feel about things. Then, gradually more and more layers came in, and it became a book.

Arzee's position allowed me to do a lot of things. The tone of the book is very melodramatic, thought of from the perspective of someone who is very suspicious about things. Even when people are being nice to him, he wonders if they are being condescending. This sort of crooked way of looking at the world brought about a richer narrative than you would have found with a normal protagonist. And then seeing Bombay from below -- from someone who looks up at people, buildings, the sky...it gave me a chance to make the city new and strange again. And then the idea of a cinema came in -- that a man who is so uncomfortable in his body when he's walking the streets, loses all that once he's in the projection room of the cinema -- because then he's looking down at people, not up. When he's up there, he feels secure, and it allows him a place in the world. And he carries that sense of being and aggression even when he's left the projection room and is walking the streets.

That's why the key point of the book is when Arzee loses his job -- it completely unhinges him.

How did you get into the head of a character that's so clearly nothing like you?

That's the work of writing. For instance, many male writers write first person narratives of female characters. It's all about trying to think oneself into another person's character. It's not always easy -- you make mistakes and then have to start all over again. It's about trying to imagine someone else's pain or thoughts. It's all in the details -- down to imagining why someone would wrap his chewing gum in his bus ticket.

It was very hard, but that's a good thing. Because if it had taken less time, like I had imagined, it would have been really poor work. A book that I thought would be ready in 5-6 months took three years! I had to be patient and ready to rework drafts as many times as necessary. Sometimes the tone is not right, sometimes there is no consistency, speeding and slowing time down...these are dozens of problems of novel-writing.

A lot of the composition is not done at the desk. Like I might finish a morning's work and go out and see something that strikes me -- and then reinterpret it for Arzee.

How much of the book comes from your own life?

Every book is at once autobiographical and not. Writers draw from all kinds of experiences -- their own, their family's, friends, things they may have seen. But all this stuff is all threaded through the writer, so there's no way it won't be autobiographical. One element in the book that helped positioned me to write it this way was the fact that I was jobless a year before I started writing it. So since I had a lot of time on my hands, I would drift and go to these small cinemas and watch the people there -- mostly unemployed and vagrant. For that brief time, I was able to share their values and the meaning of what it was like to be left out of things because I was in the same position. Most of my friends were doing their own thing while I didn't have a job -- often they would buy me coffee (laughs). You know, friends look after you in tough times. So for a while I had the same sense of being left out that Arzee has -- which was useful when I was writing

What kind of reactions to the book have you got so far?

My first, most critical, careful reader was my mother. She read it very carefully, wondering how autobiographical it was -- and whether the mother in the book was herself (chuckles). You know, things like 'the soft tyranny' of Arzee's mother -- I can just see my mother's face when she was reading that!

As for friends, I owe them a lot -- because some of them were my first readers. And they are valuable to any writer because they know you well enough to shut the manuscript and tell you that this is really poor work. Initially you rebel against that and think, oh, they've not understood, but later you realise that there is substance in what they are saying. Now maybe when they read it, they might not enjoy it so much because they've seen the bad side of it (laughs).

A lot of my blog readers have written to me about the book, with very specific feedback -- telling me what they liked or didn't like, portions that struck a chord with them etc. These things show that they are sophisticated readers. It pleases me because that's what I used to do with other people's books too. By and large, they've received it well.

What books do you like to read?

I read a LOT. When it's your job to do book reviews -- well, you can imagine. Last year, I did 70 book reviews. It was hard work. India and literature is going through a great phase -- the younger generation is more confident of its own voice. Also, novels written in regional languages are being translated, and we really have some great stuff coming in. I like reading and writing about books that have gone unnoticed or those that are lying in small presses. You can really make a difference to the life of a good book by discovering it and then writing about it.

But my favourite genre is the novel. I think of the world in novelistic terms. I like authors like Dickens, Vikram Chandra, Orhan Pamuk, to name a few.

Was it difficult to get published?

No, some publishers were interested from the beginning, so it was actually a struggle to keep it from them. I didn't want to commit too early. I think that was a good move, because once you've signed a contract, a sense of complacency sets in. You should always be close to the end before you do that. It was bought in May last year, and then it was clear that it needed more work, so I went on to churn out three more drafts than anticipated.

People generally knew I was working on something and I have been around -- working in the literary trade -- my blog was up for everyone to see...so getting people to read my book and accept it was not a issue.

Why does one see so many blogger-turned-authors these days?

One, there is a perception that bloggers have some sort of audience already. So you don't have to start from scratch in marketing them. Bloggers are considered the informal side of journalism -- many journalists also are bloggers. But at the end of the day, all this doesn't matter. It has the same significance as whether you're a vegetarian or non-vegetarian!

Did you ever think of another career?

No, I don't think I'm good at anything else. But for a time, I wanted to make films -- you know how it is -- all your life you've only seen Hollywood and Bollywood...then you go to Delhi University and someday catch a film festival at India Habitat Centre, and come back totally wowed by these foreign films! But I think I've chosen the right career for myself -- especially since I prefer working alone and I'm not really very social.

What are your future plans?

I'm currently editing a book, which is an anthology of Indian fiction coming out in America next year. I was commissioned this project because they read my blog. It was great fun reading for it -- old writers, new translations...half of it comprises of stories in English and the other half, Indian languages. I've also given equal space to old and new writers. It's nice to be doing a project like this, because in a way you've been asked to present your own taste to readers. After this is done, I'll take a break to enjoy this time and then start work on my next book. I wrote a short story a while ago, and I have a feeling my next book will be based on it

But I want to take a break right now and enjoy this moment -- because once I start writing again it'll be the same rigmarole -- of sleepless nights, irritable mornings, family hating you again...might as well enjoy this moment right now. Also I'm touring for the book, which I'm really enjoying.

Any advice for aspiring writers?

Yes, read a lot -- read varied stuff. Don't stick to your comfort zone. Read something that challenges you, makes you think about it. If you understand everything from the beginning, you're a passive consumer, which won't increase your range. Don't stick to Paulo Coelho and Dan Brown. In fact, throw them as far as you can! Paulo Coelho is a rubbish writer -- I know many people like him, but I think it's just comfort food for the mind. It's not going to lead you anywhere. I honestly do NOT believe that if you want something bad enough, the universe will conspire to give it to you. Rubbish!

Read a good literary review every week -- it will help you understand books better.

Copy out sentences that you like. This really helps. When you read a sentence, the eye moves so fast that you miss what you loved about it. When you copy it out, you hear it in a different way and realise why that sentence is so great. It helped me a lot when I was writing my own book. It made me a better editor of my own work.

Insiyah Vahanvaty