Agastya Sen, known to friends by the English name August, is a child of the Indian elite. His friends go to Yale and Harvard. August himself has just landed a prize government job. The job takes him to Madna, “the hottest town in India,” deep in the sticks. There he finds himself surrounded by incompetents and cranks, time wasters, bureaucrats, and crazies. What to do? Get stoned, shirk work, collapse in the heat, stare at the ceiling. Dealing with the locals turns out to be a lot easier for August than living with himself. English, August is a comic masterpiece from contemporary India. Like A Confederacy of Dunces and The Catcher in the Rye, it is both an inspired and hilarious satire and a timeless story of self-discovery. ... Read more
Customer Reviews (25)
This book, written in English, was published in 1988 and was the author's first novel. In it, a well-educated, well-connected young man from Calcutta took up a post in a provincial backwater somewhere in the middle of India, just after joining the Indian civil service. The town was known mainly for having the nation's hottest weather.
The man, Agastya, nicknamed August, was Westernized and urbanized. He'd taken the post impulsively to gain a new perspective on his country. But soon he grew stupefied from the heat, the boredom of the daily routine and his self-important superiors, the bad food, too much pot and the lack of available women. Because of his education and background -- English lit major at college, Westernization, big-city origins -- he felt like an outsider. He sought comfort from his tapes of Tagore and Ella Fitzgerald, and solace in the Bhagavad Gita and Marcus Aurelius.
The story was written in the third person, from his point of view. It recorded mainly the daily round of activities, the characters he met, and his restlessness. In the course of the book, he observed various paths that people around him had taken: throwing themselves into administrative routine; facing life with mockery; drinking, getting stoned or other debaucheries; devoting themselves selflessly to others, or engaging in revolutionary agitation like the local Naxalites. Or, like his college friends in Delhi, beginning lucrative careers in the private sector as bankers or accountants. But at the book's end, after achieving a bit of perspective, he seemed still unsure of the path to take.
As the novel progressed, I found him very self-involved, cynical, with little compassion for others. He didn't really grow close to anyone over time, and for me that made things a bit monotonous by the end.
Yet it was also highly entertaining to read his reactions to the people around him, as he tried to deal with his new surroundings and work out how to proceed. The atmosphere of boredom in a strange, unattractive place, of groping for one's bearings, of being a person between two worlds, was communicated well, in my opinion. The quiet introspection was refreshing, compared to some other more flamboyant writers from the region. And many of the mordant observations and comments, especially in the early chapters, were very funny.
The perspectives of the man's father and uncle, the voices of traditional values and experience that he couldn'tquite share, were a useful contrast: "The greatest praise you mimics long for is to be called European junkies . . ." "Most us, Ogu, live with a vague dissatisfaction, if we are lucky. Living as we do, upon us is imposed a particular rhythm -- birth, education, a job, marriage, then birth again, but we all have minds, don't we?"
By the end, I thought this young writer's book communicated well what it felt like to be young, from a certain Westernized background, in a strange place, at the start of one's career.
"'What do you use this hall for normally?'
"The [attendant] looked puzzled by the question. 'Oh . . . everything.' He shrugged. 'Family Planning vasectomy and tubectomy camps, school table-tennis championships, bridge tournaments, meetings of the Youth Club, marriage parties . . . everything.' All at one time, I hope, thought Agastya."
"The [administrators] and their wives believed vehemently in the indignity of labour (so did most of Madna believe that one's social standing was in inverse proportion to the amount of one's own work that one did for oneself), and it is easier to believe these things when one's domestic servants are being paid by the Government."
"Agastya was enraged at himself, for agreeing to the afternoon, for being in Madna, for a job that compelled him to be polite to [his boss] and his wife, for being in the job he was, for not having planned his life with intelligence, or for having dared to believe that he was adaptable enough to any job and circumstance, for not knowing how to change either, for wasting a life. . . . That men are at some time masters of their fates now seemed a seductive untruth, at besta half-truth . . . . Most men like him chose in ignorance and fretted in an uncongenial world, and learnt to accept and compromise, with or without grace, or slipped into despair."
"Why is it [said Agastya's uncle] . . . that the first thing you are reminded of by something that happens around you is something obscure and foreign, totally unrelated to the life and languages around you? . . . You are an absurd combination, a boarding-school-English-literature education and an obscure name from Hindu myth. . . [Y]ou said this morning, all [you] want is to be happy. What you need is a whipping. . . . [Y]ou are interested in nothing, and you think that is a virtue."
"[In America] everyone seems friendly at first, everyone stops and asks, 'Hi, how ya doing?' But after a while you realize that that's it, nothing ever follows that up. And to answer that with anything less exuberant than 'Pretty good' is a social outrage. The creed is to be bright, brisk and busy."
"The flux of the sea now seemed the only pattern, within and beyond the mind -- mirrored even in his encounters with the myriad faces, on some of which he had tried to impose an order by seeing them as mirror-images, facets of his own self, but now that longing, for repose through the mastering of chaos, itself seemed vain. Perhaps it was true that he had first to banish all yearning, and learn to accept the drift, perhaps it was true that all was clouded by desire, as fire by smoke, as a mirror by dust, as un unborn babe by its covering."
Thank God this has been published in the US. As rude as a turnip and side-wrackingly funny.
This is quite a pleasant read and the author has quite a funny turn of phrase, but overall the book is nothing special.It's hard to enthuse about a book where the main charachter goes to the middle of India, has no interest in his job, and nothing really happens.So what?
I found there were an excess of charachters in the book, who didn't really add anything to the story line.Also, the author is over-fond of pooping jokes.Quite funny in the first chapter or so, but by the time you've read your hundredth one towards the end of the book, they really start to grate.
The great Indian novel?
Here's a slightly over-the-top review I wrote a few years back...
This, by far, is one of the best books I have ever read in the English language, and not just by an Indian author. It's based on the author's experiences in the first few months of being an IAS officer when he is posted to a small township in the middle of nowhere (Looks like AP in the movie based on the book). This autobiographical background gives authenticity and depth to the novel. Not surprisingly, a major theme of the book is the isolation the author experiences, and the impossibity, considering he's a city boy, of his coming to terms with his new rural status.
The book has a deliciously irreverent air about it, about life and the IAS, which is what makes it such compelling reading. It's the first job the protagonist has ever had and one finds it very easy to relate to the dilemmas and challenges he faces therein. The book is a welcome change from pretty, pansy-ish works of fiction written by ex-pats sitting in the US or UK whose descriptions of India, in my opinion, border on magic-realism. The example that comes to mind is Rohington Mistry (Such a Long Journey, I think was the book) writing about Parsis in Bombay - found the description too sanitized and artificial - maybe not being a Bombayite makes it difficult for me to appreciate it. This book on the other hand has character and a very 'real' feel to it, it scores high on originality, everything about it feels new, the author seems to be covering ground not covered before by any other author.
The book is quite critical about the bureaucracy and some of the characters the author mocks are easily recognizable, I am told, as being based on real people he encountered when he was in the town that serves as the model for Madna. No surprise then that the book caused quite a few ripples in the IAS circle when it came out, which is of course another reason to read it! Upamanyu Chatterji, while on the subject, has apparently left the IAS and is a full time author now - a decision that has my full support based on the reading of this book. No wastage of talent happening here.
The book is incredibly funny (I feel it's tough to make people laugh and this book manages to quite well), even through the dark parts (unfortunately, there's plenty of that too) there is this wry humour thing going on which surprisingly makes the protagonist's lows a more endurable shade of blue. Another interesting thing about the book is that it seems to have been addressed to those of us who are well on our way to having 'good' careers but are not really sure if that is what we really want to do. And how this uncertainty forces us to ask ourselves what our purpose for being here is. The book doesn't answer these questions but gives legitimacy to these questions, and suggests this phase of questioning ourselves is one that all of us must pass through at some point in our lives. August joins the IAS because 1) his dad was an IAS officer, 2) he's not sure what he wants to do and 3) has some vague notions about helping India. But he gets pretty disillusioned in Madna - about the bureaucracy, the sycophancy, the corruption, the feudal attitude of the IAS officers and life in general - and is amazed at how the big Indian machine continues to move forward despite all these spanners in its works. Some of the themes explored in the novel: boredom, existential crisis, scarcity of women, masturbation, bouts of intensive exercise alternating with extended dope sessions (I have no idea what he's talking about, honest).
This book makes me proud to be an Indian, this is the Great Indian Novel.
A Brilliantly Funny and Irreverant Coming of Age Story in India
Imagine combining Salinger's THE CATCHER IN THE RYE with Roth's PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT and Kevin Smith's CLERKS and setting the whole story in rural India, using for a protagonist a college-educated, citified, pot-smoking, Marcus Aurelius reading, half-Bengali, half-Christian slacker whose friends have Anglicized his Bengali name, Agastya, into August. All this and more are accomplished in Upamanyu Chatterjee's hilarious 1988 novel ENGLISH, AUGUST. Whether you view it as a coming of age story or a slacker novel, this book is a comic masterpiece, THE GRADUATE in India without a Mrs. Robinson.
Chatterjee's story centers around a recent college graduate named Agastaya Sen. Known to his friends as August and to his family as Ogu, Agastaya lives the dissolute, carefree life of the privileged in Delhi, his father being the Governor of Bengal. Unfortunately, his mother, a Catholic from Goa, died from meningitis when Agastaya was just three years old, so he was raised largely by aunts. He passes seemingly effortlessly through college, acquiring a hybrid Western/Indian lifestyle that includes ample quantities of alcohol and marijuana. His major goal in life is simply to be happy, to live contentedly and not be bothered, and certainly not to fall into the rut of commuting to an office, working, commuting home, and then rising the next day to do it all again until he dies.
Having successfully achieved a high score on the national examinations for government service, however, August consents to a position in the Indian Administrative Service and a posting to a distant country town named Madna. Once there, he begins a training period and proves himself to be a heroic shirker of work, an incorrigible pot smoker, a compulsive freeloader, and an almost pathological liar. He arrives at work at 11:00 in the morning and works until lunch, then repairs to his private room for the rest of the afternoon, getting stoned, listening to music, reading some occasional Marcus Aurelius, and sleeping. Still, despite his best efforts to do little or nothing, August ingratiates himself into the local society and actually learns bits and pieces of his future job. Along the way, he develops friendships with an iconoclastic editorial cartoonist named Sethe, a good-hearted alcoholic government worker named Shankar, and Madna's police chief, Kumar. When he finally moves into a position of modest responsibility as a Block Development Officer in the even smaller and more backward village of Jompanna, August surprises himself (and us) by unexpectedly, and modestly heroically, solving the village's water shortage problem.
ENGLISH, AUGUST is subtitled An Indian Story, and indeed it is, yet it is also a universal story about growing up and finding one's place in the world, about giving up one's ideals and acceding to the tedious realities and responsibilities of adult life. Chatterjee's is a tale of India's multiple worlds, from the West itself (represented by England and America), the cosmopolitan strivers of the big cities, the ineffectual but lifetime-employed government workers, and the countless millions of Indians living in the rural countryside. Chatterjee reminds us constantly of India's many languages, of the difficulty that the people of one nation can have in understanding one another's lives as well as their speech.
No doubt the most noteworthy aspect of ENGLISH, AUGUST is its humor. Agastaya is a comic hero, wise-cracking and irreverent with regard to India's social and cultural institutions. One of his first observations in Madna is an excruciatingly ugly statue of Gandhi, with his walking staff now being used to prop up the statue from behind in a particularly unsightly manner. Each time he is asked the meaning of his given name, Agastaya, August invents (and sometimes actually spurts out) an outlandish explanation. When a frog takes up residence in his Madna room, August decides to leave him there and even gives him a name. The best of Chatterjee's observations concern India itself. He describes his father's serious approach to life as a blend of Marcus Aurelius and Reader's Digest, describes an over-Westernized college classmate as the kind of person who would love to get AIDS because "it's raging in America," and notes that "most of us seem to be so grateful that he [E.M. Forster] wrote that novel about India." Referring to an Indian movie director, August's slacker pal Dhrubo (who ultimately takes a job at Citibank) comments that "he [the director, Ritwik Ghatak] was awful until the French said he was good, and now he's a Master."
Chatterjee creates an exceptionally strong sense of place and a strong cast of distinctly memorable supporting characters (mostly male) who orbit dizzily around August's search for himself. August's boss, Srivastav, is a portly, bloviating big shot, yet a surprisingly good-hearted and efficient administrator. Another government administrator named Bajaj is described as "very tall and worryingly thin, with large woebegone eyes and a receding chin, as though his progenitors had been a female spaniel and Don Quixote." Then there is August's cook, Vasant, and Dhrubo and Sethe and Shankar and Agastaya's hilariously sarcastic uncle Pultukaku, and Mohan Gandhi with his wife Rohini, and the strange story of John Avery and his Indian wife, Sita, who set out to find the place where Avery's grandfather was devoured by a lion a half century earlier.
ENGLISH, AUGUST offers a marvelously entertaining passage to modern India, with all its complexities and paradoxes and sufferings and inanities. Along the way, Chatterjee drops little observational gems on the path, as when he observes that most Indians "would never read Gandhi, much less implement him" because "it was always much easier to deify a hero than to understand him." This is a first-rate comic novel that presents life in a country few Americans understand.
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