Man is mandir: ‘My friend Sancho’ by Amit Varma and ‘Arzee the dwarf’ by Chandrahas Choudhary

Sumana Roy is the author of How I became a Tree, a work of nonfiction, Missing: A Novel, Out of Syllabus: Poems and My Mother’s Lover and Other Stories, a collection of short stories.

Like most words that mean little but pretend to say a lot, secular was one that I did not encounter by accident. Its meaning, and the shadows of its connotations, had to be taught, along with other words that signified adult boredom to my bored-of-childhood eyes – success, democracy, corruption, among others. And like many of these words that lived on the margins of my consciousness before they actually came to reside there, wafting in the breeze of overheard conversations – a father's debate with a colleague, a mother's complaint to a friend, and often in the accent of a television newsreader – secular was a word I continued to mishear all my childhood. How could I have thought of this word as just another variety of the air cooler, a brand called Say Cooler? But that is another story.

Like most 15-year-olds whose only expectation from a word such as this was the reciprocity of a few marks as acknowledgement for recognition on a question paper, I too surrendered to its mild ennui. I memorised its genesis and the incantatory phrase with which it had been welcomed into the Indian Constitution – which was then, for me, an imagined obese book with solutions for all the world's problems, including my mother's constipation (because it sounded very close to 'constitution'). Almost two decades have passed since I first wrote the word in a notebook – and how worldly-wise it seems to have become since then!

This summer I read two Indian English novels within weeks of each other, both of which deal with the secular in complicated and far-reaching ways. Both are debut novels by, to use an inefficient colloquial, Bombay writers: Amit Varma's My Friend Sancho and Chandrahas Choudhury's Arzee the Dwarf. First, the storylines. In Varma's novel, a young man named Abir Ganguly works at a Bombay tabloid called the Afternoon Mail. One night, called by the police to cover an arrest, he hears the sound of bullets and then the scream of a girl. He is asked by his editor to turn this report into a human-interest story, and so he meets Muneeza, the young daughter of the victim, a Muslim who is falsely implicated by the police. The novel, in Abir's first-person narration, becomes a record of the developing love story between the journalist and the victim's daughter. Choudhury's novel tells the story of Arzee, a dwarf who is lovable and irritating in turns. This is also a love story, one about the "midget man" and a Christian hairdresser called Monique, narrated in an energetic and quivering third person.

Reading these two novels in succession, and being aware of a few personal details about the writers, it was difficult not to play a bit of spot-the-similarities game. To begin with, both the writers used to blog at, a fine blog about literature and ideas, which Choudhury now runs alone. (Varma is one of India's most famous and popular bloggers and, like Abir, the journalist in his novel, I have suffered from withdrawal symptoms when his has not been updated regularly.) Both novels are set in Bombay; and while Bombay might not be Bloomsbury, it is fascinating to see how the Maximum City continues to inspire diverse narratives of belonging and otherness. "The rhythm of Bombay is relentless," writes Abir in Sancho. "[I]n one ear I hear the excited heartbeat of Mohammad Iqbal … in the other the sound of Vallabh Thombre."

In a way that one would expect a Goan novel to paraphrase a life by the sea, the Bombay novel is increasingly being seen as a Hindi film novel. (Amit Chaudhuri's The Immortals, a novel about a life in music, has Lata Mangeshkar as a character in it; Binod in Amitava Kumar's Home Products is writing a script for a Hindi film; Tabish Khair's Filming is about the early life of the Bombay film industry, to cite a few recent examples.) Choudhury's Arzee is a projectionist at a cinema hall called Noor in Bombay ("all the great divas and sirens of Bollywood through the decades were here, fixed in time, eternally radiant"). And Abir, though he only does the crime beat for a Bombay tabloid, and though he thinks that "all the pigs in India put together don't have that much ham" as Shahrukh Khan's acting, cannot help taking Muneeza, the girl he likes, to a theatre:

The problem with watching a film at a theatre in Bombay is that there are other people around … Problem one, they were making noise – not much, but even giggling and heavy breathing can be irritating … Problem two, the guy was sitting right behind me, and kept kicking my chair … Paresh Rawal looked at me from the screen and started laughing.

For Abir, Paresh Rawal is both an intruder and guide, a bit like the Bombay skyscrapers. In his "laughter", we find a "neutrality" that makes him the descendant of Salman Rushdie's secular but Quran-sourced Gabriel Farishta. It also tells us how far the secularist project in the Indian-English novel has moved from the iconography of religious literature to the more crowded (Abir's sense of "other people around" is also a happy extension of the Indian English writer's obsession with crowdedness) space of cinema, allowing as it does for a din of multiple voices.

Hybrid plants
Most striking between My Friend Sancho and Arzee the Dwarf is the similarity in theme. Both are novels about love across and against the divide of religion. I do not remember encountering the word secular in either of the novels; it would not have quite rung true, such is the 'earthy' voice in them. But the books do raise questions about secularism in their own subtle ways. In a world of role-playing, where religion has become an oily comb that attracts hair from either ends of a neat parting, Varma and Choudhury steer clear of banner-hugging and jersey-wearing versions of institutionalised religion. One returns from their books assured that there are still porous nooks of the secular left, that these little 'empty' spaces in our overcrowded maps of belonging still give peace. The watering holes of peace come in many guises. In Varma's novel, they live as photo albums, shopping malls, the Internet chatroom (where a friend signs off with "good night and shabba khair, lol!", a lovely polyphony of registers), bookshops with their arbitrary arrangement of voices, literature (which gives the Muslim girl, Muneeza, the name Sancho, from Cervantes) and also the tabloid that Abir writes for – these and the secular democracy of Death.

In Arzee, Choudhury, by a brilliant masterstroke, turns religion itself into a secular zone. Here is Arzee:

[I]n a way dwarfhood is its own religion … If I don't belong in the world of normal people at other points, then why should I be with them when they turn to God? I won't – I'll be by myself instead … I'm not a coin … I'm like a bottle top … I'm not part of the system.

The secular space of the cinema screen, where people love and cry with pleasure and guilt, offers multiple emblems of the secular. The balcony of the Noor, for instance, where a procession of actresses stand in frozen attention on framed photographs; or the ceiling of the theatre that, heaven-like, is "that place between the sky and the earth". Phiroz, with his "dome-like head" (man is mandir, the writer seems to be saying), with a "pantheon of deities installed on a shelf … above his head", and "three clocks ticking away on the walls", all to different time zones in the projectionist's room, likewise become embodiments of the secular spirit itself.

Meanwhile, the cricket of "bats and balls, swing and spin, pitches and field placements" is turned into something of a religion. By this logic, cricketers become gods, all because of match-fixing and betting wherein a "special festival scheme" is run. The word festival, with its tone of religiosity, is slit open gently, for Choudhury even turns the human body into a carnival of the secular: "And what a festival of corporeal life was unfolding all around him – serious, devout, unselfconscious." And then there is the imagination, in which opposites exist in close embrace; and alongside this is the temper, which allows "requited love" to be interpreted as "the paradise raised from … a pair of synchronized imaginations." But isn't this what the political theorist Bhikhu Parekh called Mohandas Gandhi's god? "Gandhi's was basically a non-violent god holding the universe together by means of love," writes Parekh, "which Gandhi saw at work in the forces of gravitation, mutual attraction and natural sympathy."

The connection with Gandhi is important. Arzee, whose surname is Gandhi, is called a "hybrid plant" by the Hindu Deepak, and the dwarf eventually discovers that he is "two beings within one, two names, three religions, four parents – he was a piece of patchwork made with the wildest needle!" Thus, secularism here is syncretism, what Immanuel Kant called and Gandhi practiced as "self-pluralisation". Both novelists repeatedly invoke the ideal of a syncretic, tolerant civilisation, in line with a Nehruvian rational secularism. Arzee explains after his discovery that his real parents were actually Christian, "when I said the other day that I was Hindu on one side and Muslim on the other … I'm not really that either!"

But there are also the majoritarian instincts and impulses. This is a world in which someone will eventually ask, as Deepak does, "So, if your father was Hindu, what did he go and marry a Muslim for?" Or a Hindu policeman will tell a secular journalist, as Thombre does to Abir, "In so many years of fighting underworld, so many encounters, I have only killed Musalman." Or in which Abir can ask the dead victim's boss, "Did the Muslim bit hurt?" And, of course, there are no answers there.

Arzee and Sancho discuss difference, but with none of the professor's calibrated tone. Abir, for instance, tells us about the different categories of porn – Black Hair Sex, Goth Sex, High Heels and Indian Sex, Messy and Pantyhose and Amateur Sex. For his part, Arzee talks of having "lived so many lives already". And of course there is the ultimate celebration of difference in the idea of "incarnations" – of repetition without imitation, of repetition with difference, of a possible world in which Phiroz could be a pigeon in his next birth. Friday is, thus, both the day for public worship in mosques and the day that films are released. So, when the circus ("Go back to the circus you come from," Monique's father barks at Arzee), a totem of difference, is turned into a joke without laughter, we move uncomfortably in our seats. After all, we have been led to believe in what Arzee's father had told him: "If you open your heart to a person who's different from you, you grow bigger, not smaller."

~ Sumana Roy teaches at the Department of Humanities, Jalpaiguri Government Engineering College. Her first novel, Love in the Chicken´s Neck, was long listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize 2008.

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