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Reviewed by:
  • English, August
  • Niranjana Iyer
English, August by Upamanyu ChatterjeeNew York Review Books Classics, 2006, 336 pp., $14.95 (paper)

English, August enjoys cult status in India. First published in 1988, the novel has at last reached the American reading public following its April 2006 release by New York Review Books Classics.

The story of a young civil servant's travails in rural India, English, August is the literary debut of Upamanyu Chatterjee, himself a civil servant in the Indian Administrative Service (IAS). Few novels from the subcontinent dare to treat their Indianness with irreverence, but Chatterjee wears his nationality lightly. The result is a book as funny as it is truthful.

Agastya Sen, a newly recruited IAS officer of "no devouring interests" and minimal ambition is posted to the fictional district of Madna, deep in the hinterland of India. The district's dubious charms include a hotel named Madna International and a statue of "a short fat bespectacled man with a rod coming out of his arse." The fat man is Gandhi, and the rod props up the deformed statue to prevent it from collapsing (again). No one in Madna seems to find anything amiss with this arrangement.

Madna might abound in absurdities but lacks almost everything else—a library, television (electricity is a bonus), cultural or intellectual activity and any congenial company for the twenty-four-year-old Agastya; it is, in one of his acquaintances' words, "sick, there's no one to talk to, no place to go, nothing to do, just come back to your room after office, get drunk, feel lonely and jerk off." [End Page 171]

Isolated by his intelligence, apathy and lack of gratitude for his much-prized job, Agastya's only consolations are marijuana, masturbation and the Maxims of Marcus Aurelius, where he finds a curious echo of his loneliness. Agastya's unhappiness, however, never comes across to the reader as self-pity; Chatterjee's keen sense of the ridiculous manages to encompass Agastya's condition without diminishing it.

Agastya's dislocation in rural India is exacerbated by his Westernization—a consequence of his urban upbringing. His name has been anglicized by his childhood friends to "August" (and sometimes, simply, "English"), and he "speaks English better than any Indian language," though he's never left India. Upon hearing of a senior officer's rumored affair, Agastya's first thought is inevitably Peyton Place. The concerns of rural India he sees through his work—bank loans for purchasing cattle, territory disputes, caste politics, transfers of primary school teachers—are so unfamiliar as to seem surreal to him.

Circumstance and artistic preference, rather than a rejection of his Indian identity, are the cornerstone of Agastya's Westernization; he has no desire, for instance, to move to Europe or America, visualizing them instead as "a passage through clean beautiful places with faces looking through him." One of the novel's characters, when considering E. M. Forster's A Passage to India, says, "India's darling Englishman—most of us seem so grateful he wrote that novel about India." Agastya, it is evident, harbors no such gratitude.

Madna is thus gradually revealed to be the catalyst, rather than the cause, of Agastya's alienation. Agastya personifies a generation of rootless Indians who feel no connection with their rural pasts and find little in their Westernized realities. Unable to find a satisfying career alternative, and at a loss to understand his unhappiness, Agastya is seemingly at an impasse. Chatterjee wisely offers no shiny, neat resolution; Agastya's sojourn in Madna is, after all, a journey of self-discovery—with no final destination.

English, August is very much a novel of '80s India: Russia, rather than the United States, is India's superpower ally, and there's no sense of the optimism about India's economy that currently animates much of the country's urban youth. The book is, however, much more than a snapshot of the age. Globalization is increasingly forcing people in the developing world to negotiate their identities between ancient [End Page 172] histories and Western-dominated futures; we can only speculate, as Chatterjee has done, as to the outcome of this balancing act...


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pp. 171-173
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