Monday, June 20, 2011

English, August - Upamanyu Chatterjee

My reading of Indian English writing is negligible, somehow I have not got around to reading them as I try to do Indian vernacular writing. So, several years ago, I saw this book 'English, August' by Upamanyu Chatterjee. I bought it on a lark, as it seemed about the Indian bureaucracy and since Upamanyu himself had apparently been an IAS officer, I thought it would be good. I was not disappointed, this is one of my favorite books ever and one that I enjoyed thoroughly.
Set in the late 80's, the book is about 'Agastya Sen', aged 24, called August due to his child hood fascination to be like Anglo Indians and the  1 year he spends at a place 'Madna' a fictional district in the hinterland of India. Though August, has been selected for the IAS, he is not interested in it, he has joined it because he does not know what else to do with this life. He is a rich, or at-least upper middle class youth, belonging to the yuppie generation which talks 'Hinglish' (Upamanya has satirized it, even before the term became used commonly) and is also a slacker.
amazing mix, the English we speak. Hazaar fucked. Urdu and American,' Agastya laughed, 'a thousand fucked, really fucked. I'm sure nowhere else could languages be mixed and spoken with such ease.'
His father himself has been a venerated figure in the  Civil Service, been a CEC and is now the Governor of Bengal. 
August reaches Madna is immediately shocked by the change in surrounding to which he has been used too and feels completely dislocated from reality. He is under the charge of the district collector 'Srivatsav' and has to attend various department meetings. But August is a slacker and he spends most of time in his darkened room of the guest house, doing basically the following, reading Marcus Aurelius and the Gita, listening to music, lying naked, getting stoned and masturbating to his fantasies. He finds ingenious ways to slack out of work, (even attending meetings stoned and making sure that no one finds it out) and to finagle invitations for lunch/dinner from the persons who live with their families there. (He is disgusted by the meals prepared by Vasanth his cook, whom he feels is feeding him his turds). August meets a motley group of characters with whom he has to interact. There is Shankar, his next door neighbor in the guest house, an engineer who spends most of his time drinking, singing thumris and believing that Jagadamba will get his transfer approved. The collector is a serious man, full of himself and the sanctity of his post and in August's point of view a asshole. There is also the district SP, Kumar who seems to be a connoisseur of porn movies and who laments to August that Indian women are reserved and hence our porn movies are not good.  

Upamanyu is not afraid of ruffling feathers and goes all out in satirizing and lampooning basically everything. (I don't know if he was in the IAS when he wrote this, but it should have caused a scandal if he had been around after publishing it). His is a brand of weird, kinky and lusty humor, one which may startle if you are a bit prim and proper. One complaint against Indian English writing is that it tends to sensationalize issues and present caricatures to the Indian audience. In this work, I felt that Upamanyu didn't do that. For instance there is a incident where August sees a statue of a old bald man with spectacles with a rod coming out of his ass. August is shocked that Gandhi could be represented in this way, but is told that the rod is to keep the statue upright. Considering the care that we take for our statues and other monuments, it would be touchy for us to consider this as sensationalism or stereotyping or insulting Gandhi. Who knows, a Gandhi statue may have suffered such a fate in reality too. Then there is the collector who ensures that he arrives at all functions late by at least 30 minutes as he thinks protocol and his post demands it. What's even worse is that the organizers too are used to it and think of it as natural. He is for sure is one of zaniest writers I have ever read. The parts where August lies about his family, upbringing etc when someone asks him about it are hilarious. (He tells one person that his wife is dead, the other he is Muslim and their families refuse to the marriage, to yet another he is suffering from Breast cancer, even he finds himself confronted by these lies and cannot remember what he told earlier). Word by word, passage by passage he makes us laugh out loud or at-least smile. Though the passages are funny, one senses a concealed rage which is manifesting in this manner. It's not that the book is fully of ribald jokes and fun, there are several places where he shows an insight into a troubled dislocated mind. 
Eventually, he knew, he would marry, perhaps not out of passion, but out of convention, which was probably a safer thing. And then, in either case, in a few months or years they would tire of disagreeing with each other, or what was more or less the same thing, would be inured to each other's odd and perhaps disgusting ways, the way she squeezed the tube of toothpaste and the way he drank from a glass and didn't rinse it, and they would slide into a placid and comfortable unhappiness, and maybe unseeingly watch TV every day, each still a cocoon

Now, why should one empathize with August, let alone like him?. He is financially well off, well educated, has go into the cream of the Indian jobs (remember this is the late 80's before the full blown advent of computers). There are much much more people in more difficult circumstances who would be deserving of our empathy right? Maybe, but consider this incident which happens when August falls ill (nothing serious) and is lying in the room looking at the ceiling. He starts laughing uncontrollably without knowing why, thinking about his situation. How many of us, rich, poor, middle/upper middle class have felt the same about our life at some or other? A sense of dislocation from our every day life, through which we move as though in a haze. This is not the case of a person who has been pulled out from his dream work and asked to work on something he hates. No, this is the dislocation and disengagement of some how, who does not know what he actually wants, but ends up doing something for the sake of his livelihood and as in August's case also because he does not want to disappoint his father. This feeling I am sure is common to everyone regardless of his or her material status. A lot of us manage to sweep this under the carpet and get on with our lives, but for those who cannot reconcile this it proves a problem. I personally could relate with August at some level, particularly the part about being in a dreary job and wishing that you could be spending your office hours reading something, but reality beckons and you have to meet it. In fact not just August, several other characters in the novel also suffer from the same disengagement. Shankar the engineer, who spends most of him drinking, the previous engineer Tamse who has long been transferred, but one who has done bizarre paintings of his native Goa which crude poetry attempts that show his loneliness and mental state. In fact, one feels a immediate connect with Tamse, though we do not ever encounter this character, apart from the paintings and architectural designs he has done.

The best part of the novel is that it neither gets preachy nor does August have an awakening and starts working for the rural upliftment. There are no moments of epiphany where August understands his true calling in life, not at all. August gets posted as a BDO and gets to see some of the rural problems first hand, he even tries to sort out a few, but by and large he stays true to the person he is at the beginning of the novel (i.e) a stoned direction-less slacker to the core . In what could be seen a bizarre crude joke in bad taste, he even gets an erection when a rural woman comes to him with a problem in her village. He helps her out, but is candid enough to admit that he did because it would be a change from his daily routine and also because of the woman. He also understands that his mental state is not something unique, but one which is shared by many others, but he cannot reconcile to it. He is then posted as Assistant collector for the last months of his training, but leaves for Calcutta presumably with the idea of resigning from the civil service. The novel ends at this point with August as restless as he was at the beginning of the novel.

To stretch things a bit, I would say that this novel is your Indian version of 'Catcher in the Rye', though August is 24 and the novel is more about a youth facing life in the journey to becoming a man. This is just a loose comparison and I must say that I like this novel and relate to it much much more than I did to Salinger's work. But I wonder why this is not appreciated or even spoken about more. What Dhurbo a friend of August says about Ritwich Ghatak could be applied here too. He says "He was awful at first, then the French praised him and he became a master". Maybe if the book had come out a bit later, in the liberalization era and got more publicity etc it would have been spoken about more even today. This is one novel that I go back to every year, either to read fully again or to dip into some portions. I could go on and on about this novel, but will stop here. This is a cult classic, very highly recommended. 

PS: August apparently continues with his training because in 'The Mammaries Of the Welfare State' a sort of sequel to this novel, he is present as a part of the bureaucracy, still not fully comfortable, yet chugging alone. Well, that's for another post. 

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