04 August 2009

Book review: English, August

Author: Upamanyu Chatterjee
Pages: 288
Year Of Publishing : 1988
Price: 295

To be or not to be

I know English, August came a long time ago, and though I remember catching glimpses of the film and being intrigued by it, I never got around to reading the book. I finally did read it and was amazed at how fresh and timeless this Upamanyu Chatterjee book still feels. The book was written in the late 80s and recounts the author's stint as an IAS (Indian Administrative Service) officer in a small district called Madna. At that time, the book got a great cult following, not just for the story, but the way it was recounted –with generous use of cuss words, sexually explicit passages and all of that. I dare say, this remains as sharp a read as it possibly was then.

Born and bred in metros like Calcutta and Delhi, the book's 24 year old protagonist, Agastya Sen feels completely disoriented to be posted in an underdeveloped, far-flung place in Central India. The abysmal living conditions unsettle him. And with his habit of smoking marijuana and being stoned most of the time, Agastya finds himself in a perpetual state of daze, even as he listlessly goes about with his job. He's struck by the laidback attitude of the administrative community, trying to battle with the trying conditions of the place. The collector -Mr Srivastava leading a relatively lavish lifestyle - keeps the social scene quite vibrant. Work takes a back seat for everyone and Agastya, caught in lethargy and inertia, is happy to get away with doing little or nothing. Most of the time his head is spinning, as he wonders what a guy like him could be doing in a place like Madna. But such is the heaviness he feels all round him, that he cannot gather the will to pull himself together.
It’s a vicious circle and the author brilliantly and skillfully describes page after page Agastya’s growing sense of boredom, frustration and farcical existence.

“God, he was fucked – weak, feverish, aching, in a claustrophobic room, being ravaged by mosquitoes, with no electricity, with no sleep, in a place he disliked, totally alone, with a job that didn’t interest him, in murderous weather, and now feeling madly sexually aroused. His stomach contracted with his laughter. He wanted to rebel. He said loudly, ‘I’m going to get well, shave my head, put on a jock strap and jog my way out of here’

It’s really one person’s account as he goes by his life aimlessly, but Upamanyu Chatterjee infuses his story with such varied and colourful episodes, dots it with so many nuanced characters, creates such a perfect sense of the place, that you are effortlessly drawn into a narrative that stays vibrant in spite of the essential static life of Agastya. And all this is recounted with a brazen sense of abandon and wry humour that it makes you chuckle and smile.


More admirably, the author brings a rare emotional nakedness and searing honesty to his protagonist’s internal monologues and observations, not felt by me since James Joyce’s A Portrait of An Artist As A Young Man. There are several brilliant passages that bare the protagonist’s inner most feelings but I continued to be amazed by Upamanyu Chatterjee’s power of perception and his ability to wrench out those thoughts so well.

“The noise of the jeep made sustained conversation impossible foe which Agastya was happy. He could slide down in his seat till his neck rested against its back and, without chafing, allow his mind its restlessness. In a jeep, he would smile and argue with himself, you can do nothing about your mind or your future, not until the journey is over. In a moving jeep he was not vexed by the onus of thought....

Since one assumes that the author has brought a great deal of his own personal experiences during his posting in the book and Agastya seems to be his alter ego, one wonders why he didn’t use the first person. Not that it makes a big difference but one would think of it as a natural option to take, considering that the narration is entirely from the protagonist’s point of view. Maybe a second reading will throw some light on that.

To sum up, the book feels as fresh to read today as ever. Easily, this has to be one of the most brilliantly written and genuinely edgy reads for me.

-Sandhya Iyer

7 comments:

Aarkayne said...

Excellently done Sandy. This is one of my all time favorites. I did read it in the eighties but the passages you quote come rushing back to me. The phrase 'hazaar f**d' was something I remember having picked from the book and using liberally then on :-)

When the movie released a couple of years later, it was an even greater experience for Dev Benegal had done a wonderful job adapting it and capturing the essence of Agastya's experience.

I would recommend this book to anybody interested in Indian writing in English that was significant as it came of age.

sandhya said...

Aarkayne: I can guess that many phrases here were probably picked up. 'Haazar fucked' most certainly.

renu said...

this has to be one of your best reviews. you've captured the essential angst and restlessness the narrative is so seeped in very well. abt why upamanyu did not use the first person, i think it would not have given him the advantage of perpective, which u've spoken abt. it wud've not offered him the creative detachment needed to bring out the truth , honesty of the situation, i guess.
this book truly, like u said, is truly timeless. one of my favs. thanks for this review and the passages, it made me revisit the book - i just wish they'd done away with the pic of rahul bose from the film on the cover. it sort of slaps a closure on the book.

sandhya said...

Thanks renu. My question arose because the author employs the stream of consciousness technique and there seems to be no 'distance' between the author and his protagonist so as to prompt any ironic observations. They both seem the same people and the book is autobiographical I believe. Hence the question. But I'm sure even if Chatterjee IS the protagonist, he may have opted to remain the narrator for a reason. So maybe another reading will help.

VINAY BHARAT said...

ENGLISH,AUGUST has everything in it. The language is, though English, but the feelings are absolutely Indian. In the first page itself, the author has showed his intention that he is not going to leave out his Indian id (especially in case of "hazar fucked") wherever he feels like. Of course, when the frustrations are Indain then why not the expression should be. His flexibility of opting and selecting words shows that he does not suffer from 'intellectual vulgarity,.
We love his work for his genuinity, originality and simplicity of style and handling such a massive subject of Indian SYSTEM so softly, placidly. VINAY BHARAT

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Protik Roychowdhury said...

Good review. I think I'll read it ;) :P.