‘English, August’ by Upamanyu Chatterjee: Book Review
English, August is a highly entertaining, humorous, and well-written Indian fiction novel by Upamanyu Chatterjee, who has served as an I.A.S. officer in India. Chatterjee is also a prolific writer and English, August is his first and best work. The novel chronicles the life of a twenty-four-year-old I.A.S. officer Agastya Sen, who served in the Indian bureaucracy in the 1980s. He is posted for his training in Madna, which could either be a fictional town or the actual town of Madna, a semi-village in the South Indian state of Karnataka. Note that Madna is also a census town in West Bengal. In this highly entertaining novel full of black humor, Agastya chronicles his life drifting from office to office in the bureaucracy of Madna, meeting new and interesting people, but not getting any work done. Thus, this book is a parody and an exquisite form of satire, throwing a spotlight on the deplorable conditions of Indian bureaucracy in the 1980s and before.
I picked this book up from the Victoria Lending Library and Secondhand bookstore in 2020. I had read English, August earlier in 2014, but I wanted to read it again and so bought a copy. The book chronicles in black humor and satirical prose the life of Agastya Sen, a Bengali individual who flits from office to office trying to make new meaningful acquaintances at his place of work. Like most central protagonists in Chatterjee’s literature, he has a dark side to him, a sort of grey character. Themes like depression, drifting, listlessness, and abstract thoughts are the main concerns of Agastya or August, who tries to find meaning in what he is doing. However, August is most of the time stoned because of his excessive smoking of marijuana which he successfully hides from all the higher-ups at his place of work. As a result, he feels abstracted from the standard flux of life and finds no reality in the work he tries to make sense of or in the town of Madna.
August is unpredictable and a protagonist full of flaws and complexities. He lives in his own little world of drugs, masturbation, reading, and music but likes the company of fellow junkies and shares drinks and marijuana with them. August is well-to-do but without ambition. He has managed by accident or luck to pass the I.A.S. examination, has a Governor as a father, and an I.A.S. officer as a godfather. We see in this novel how I.A.S. and I.C.S. officers and workers are pushovers, lethargic, insincere, and corrupt to the core, looking out for their own benefits without dedication to their jobs in serving the citizens of India, especially the disadvantaged like tribals. August is an I.A.S. officer who is indifferent to life and all its responsibilities and a chronic liar and shirker. He is friendly to a certain extent but is not at all reliable as a person. He is too self-centered and preoccupied with his own needs and desires. In the bargain, he tends to lose focus on essential matters. One could even say that his personality highlights a person in the early stages of clinical depression.
The black humor is why most literary critics term this novel a humorous book of fiction. However, the startling fact is that Chatterjee highlights the incompetency of the I.C.S. in a few ways through the eyes of August. For example, Chatterjee does not describe the work that an I.A.S. officer must do or the contents of the files placed before him for scrutiny. Yet through his satirical prose, we realize how incompetent and hypocritical the I.A.S. and I.C.S and the I.P.S. were in post-independence India. Moreover, through other characters like Srivastav, Sathe, Shankar, Menon, and Kumar we get to know the pulse of the Indian bureaucracy and the shenanigans of many ‘so called’ upright I.A.S. officers who are only in the job for the perks, the money, and for prestige not caring whatsoever about the people they serve.
Chatterjee has a way with his descriptions where you can use all your five senses to feel the soul of India. His descriptions of rest houses for I.A.S. officers, their bathrooms, the forests of villages ruled by Naxalites are extraordinary in their richness. Where Chatterjee’s characters are concerned, they are unforgettable because Chatterjee gives life to them through his real-life descriptions sans pretensions. His characterization and descriptions thus carry the book through, making it the page-turner it is. As an Indian, one resonates totally with the book because the descriptions are realistic and accurate to the Indian way of life and living. From rat feces in old unused whiskey glasses to milk smelling like flit spray, Chatterjee makes the real urban India of the 70s and 80s come alive, which to foreigners would seem nauseating but was indeed our reality. Chatterjee is mesmerizing and makes us feel at one with the characters. We feel welcomed by all the camaraderie and new acquaintances. August is always traveling with the new people he meets in Madna and is invariably invited to restrooms, apartments, seedy hotels, and British-era bungalows to unwind and relax. We see the characters as they are: the very life and soul of India.
August is forever meeting new people and is a part of new situations. It is taken for granted that he does work at the office, but Chatterjee gives us the impression that the work was foundationless and yielded no positive results. There is an element of drifting in this novel that makes us, along with August, glide in a marijuana haze to different states of being in rooms, states, cities, and towns. This element of drifting and being made to move with the flow of the happenings in one’s surroundings is ethereal and draws us closer to the inner workings of August’s mind. We thus see August as a young urban drug addict, prone to daydreaming and not a man of action. He is aimless and a wanderer who likes meeting sordid characters he trusts more than he trusts his father and other uncles.
As we read the text, there is a tendency to believe that August was such a listless character, probably because of a failed love affair. August regularly writes to a young lady. Her replies prompt him to even more acts of inanity and rashness. The drug element is central to this novel. Sathe, Bhatia, and August are hardcore marijuana smokers; in contrast, August has no sense of self. Sathe and Bhatia are strong personalities with even stronger convictions about themselves and life, if not their jobs. These three try every means possible during their daily activities to find a private space to smoke marijuana and lose themselves to the world which is going on without waiting for them.
Where literature is concerned, August tends to carry and read very few books. However, he has a fascination for the Bhagavad Gita and the translated Ramayan. The Gita was gifted to him by Sathe, the joker cartoonist of Madna, while the Ramayan was August’s own possession. August is a graduate and post-graduate in English Literature. Yet in all this time, he has failed to read two Bengali classics that he nevertheless carries with him: Pather Panchali by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay and Gora by Rabindranath Tagore. This indicates that August carries his Bengali roots to Madna but fails to unlock its potential in his own life and work. August does not read these novels throughout his stay in Madna. However, on his father’s advice, he reads the writings of Marcus Aurelius, who was a Roman emperor and a Stoic philosopher. This shows that August loved his father, but they were not too emotional in their sentiments towards each other.
The literature element in English, August is minimal, but one can see that however listless August is, he is quite well-read. Sadly, he has no direction, but is there any direction in the Indian bureaucracy?
English, August is a classic novel of black satire, and I highly recommend it to everyone who loves good Indian fiction. Upamanyu Chatterjee has now officially become one of my favorite writers. His books are easy to read and are rich in everything Indian. Grab your copy of this 1988 Indian classic today. The sequel to English, August is The Mammaries of a Welfare State which I am currently reading. If you want to read more Indian fiction, you can check out my multiple award-winning novels: Nirmala: The Mud Blossom and Amina: The Silent One.
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