Revisiting an Indian Classic: ENGLISH, AUGUST.

English August: An Indian Story is the celebrated India novelist Upamanyu Chatterjee’s debut novel. It is the story of a young IAS officer Agastya Sen-also called August or sometimes English -and his miserable training period in a small district town called Madna. Chatterjee himself joined the administrative service at a similar age, in 1983. When first published in 1988, English, August became a bestseller and has since been compared with John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces and J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. The novel was adapted into a film of the same name in 1994, in which Rahul Bose played the lead role. The novel presents a new generation of Indians already strongly influenced by modern American culture (several of the characters have studied in the US) — though not quite the MTV generation yet (the novel was written in 1988, when the impact of cable and satellite TV in India was still limited). It is a generation that is not entirely disaffected or alienated, but that is unsure of its future, its goals, and its ambitions. The novel on one hand is comic and on the other hand, on a serious note, it is the story of self-discovery of an aimless and undetermined youth. As the novel progresses, you cannot help but ponder on how different is Agastya Sen’s attitude towards life from the stereotype of an Indian civil servant we have in our minds. He smokes marijuana and gets stoned quite often, he always tries to escape from the administrative meetings which are a part of his training, he is confused on whether he should actually pursue his administrative career or join somewhere else. Agastya is an unlikely bureaucrat, and he doesn’t strain himself to fit in. To amuse himself when he meets the locals, Agastya makes up stories about his past. In Madna, Agastya’s life is messed up by the petty officials, endless governmental meetings, hilarious dinner parties, much drunkenness and boredom and bureaucracy. The theme of the novel is an easy target for satire, and Chatterjee does not waste the opportunity

The other day I was reading a review of an acclaimed novel titled “Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi” by Geoff Dyer in The Hindu’s Literary Review, (May 3, 2009 issue) by the critique Vijay Nair. In the article he describes the book as “vaguely reminiscent of that 1980s Indian campus bible English August ….” However at the end of the review article he comes to the conclusion that “…if I had to read a book more than once to understand what is it all about, my vote should definitely go for Chatterjee’s timeless classic”. On a personal note, I was not even born when the novel was first publish, so reading this review after a few days of reading the novel, I got an impression that English August was a “campus bible” of that period. After reading Chatterjee’s masterpiece I began a sort of short research on the book. I browsed the net, dug up old magazines and newspapers, and then decided to write this article. I found out how different international reviewers and writers responded to the book at the time of its release and thereafter and also reflected how relevant, engrossing and entertaining the book is still today. To create an impression of the overwhelming response the book got, I quote here some of the reviews. In the article that appeared in The Sunday Express, the critique wrote, “There’s a popular conception that Indian fiction in English hit the road to big time with Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English, August in 1988. The irreverent language, the wry humour and the immediately identifiable situations struck a chord with a generation of Indians which was looking for its own voice and found it in Agastya Sen.” The celebrated India writer, Amit Chaudhuri wrote about this novel, “English, August is one of the most important novels in Indian writing in English, but not for the usual reasons. Indeed, it’s at war with ‘importance,’ and is one of the few Indian English novels in the last two decades genuinely, and wonderfully, impelled by irreverence and aimlessness. It’s this acutely intelligent conflation of self-discovery with the puncturing of solemnity that makes this book not only a significant work, but a much-loved one.” The New York Times Book Review, carried, “His [Chatterjee’s] book displays a world rarely seen in modern Indian writing, revealing a detailed knowledge of the heartland that can result only from personal experience. (…) English, August wears the crown of authenticity uneasily — partly because the book is so charmingly unassuming, so natural and assured that it would be uncomfortable with any crown at all. (…) English, August has worn remarkably well. Agastya’s story is convincing, entertaining, moving — and timeless. It merits an accolade that’s far harder to earn than ‘authentic’. It’s a classic.”

One thought on “Revisiting an Indian Classic: ENGLISH, AUGUST.

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