Sunday, January 27, 2013

English, August - Upamanyu Chatterjee

First of all, many thanks to my friend Gayathri for gifting me this book.

From the back of the book: Agastya Sen is a young Indian civil servant whose imagination is dominated by women, literature and soft drugs.

The novel opens with Agastya getting stoned in a car with his friend Dhrubo at one in the morning; it is the eve of his journey to Madna, a small town in what could be called Nowhere, India where Agastya, a newly recruited IAS officer is to spend one year as a trainee. Agastya, called August by his friends is perhaps at this moment, unconcerned about his adjustment to life in a small town in India's vast belly; the urbanite in him mocks at it, shares a few laughs with his friend. "What'll you do for sex and marijuana in Madna?"

As I followed Agastya's life for the next one year in the district of Madna, I was conscious of a vague sense of familiarity with both his surroundings and with his many personal ruminations about the world he finds himself in. He goes through the motions of his life as a trainee IAS officer almost mechanically; he is intensely bored with his choice of profession, unsure of his place in Madna and at twenty four doesn't really know what to do with his life.

This novel is almost a parody of the bureaucrat's life in our country. Through Agastya's satirical and at times wry observations about Srivastav, the Collector of Madna or Kumar, the Superintendent of Police, his old college mate Bhatia who is in the forest service and who feels as displaced as Agastya himself and many others, the reader is able to get a sense of the ridiculous that inevitably goes hand in hand with the superior attitude that officers tend to adopt.

What is Agastya doing here? In a place where he feels no sense of belonging, in a job whose responsibility he almost chooses to be oblivious to? He spends hours looking at the ceiling of his room in the Madna rest house, he shows up stoned to work more often than not and lusts after the unlikeliest of women in the unlikeliest of places. He keeps a volume of Marcus Aurelius and a gray green frog whom he names Dadru, for company.

The author handles Agastya's story sublimely; the descriptions (no wonder, Mr. Chatterjee being an IAS officer himself could not have described the small town life of a bureaucrat with better accuracy) are superb and you are in turn accosted with the funny, the despairing, the shameful, the noble and the grotesque. Upamanyu Chatterjee raises questions which the reader would do well to contemplate. Who is better? A catatonic Agastya who for all his seeming intellectual superiority, spends the major portion of his time rolling a joint and wavering between decision and indecision simply because he is too disinterested, too apathetic to his surroundings or a Srivastav, who for all his bluster and an engorged sense of his own eminence, nevertheless makes an attempt to work and to do it properly? It is up to the reader to decide. Having my father in the civil services has meant that I have come across a lot of Agastyas, Srivastavs, Kumars, Mohans......I have also come across real people much better than them all and much worse as well. The Indian Civil Services is a wonderful vehicle to affect change but I have often wondered how many really have the grit for it, as will many readers of this book.

One could argue that Agastya's apathy is a product of his upbringing but at times this deplorable young man redeems himself by feeling something akin to guilt and shame. Yes he is unhappy yet he feels guilty for being so when his job juxtaposes his life with that of India's hinterland.

Upamanyu Chatterjee's debut novel is a fine piece of penmanship that manages to get to the heart of the issue: the wide spread apathy of independent India and the consequences thereof.

According to wikipedia, Mr. Chatterjee currently serves as Joint Secretary in the Ministry of Defence. Do read it; it is a very different book. It plonks a confused urbanite bang in the middle of rural India and makes his journey an unforgettable one to read about.


Pavi said...

Hey nice to see u writing reviews regularly! For a debut, this book seems to be a real good one from what I hear from you. But since it's gonna make me wonder what am I doing with my life, I prefer to read it few years from now when I no longer give a damn about that guilt feeling and get insensitive about it :D happy reading and happy reviewing!! Keep writing:)

Unknown said...

I love these stories, reminds me of the childhood days! Maybe I should get a copy of this book? :)

Great to see you writing again, keep them coming!

Bhargavi said...

Hey you are back!!! How's your health now.. And this book sounds interesting ..

Shweta said...

This book I have read but strangely English, August failed to impress me. May be a retread sometime might change my view :)

Reema Sahay said...

Unfortunately, it did not work for me too. But may be I should revisit some other time.

Santanu Sinha Chaudhuri said...

Hi Vaishnavi,

Back to your blog after a long time. Haven't read the book, but you have very accurately brought out the disconnect between the English-speaking urban rich of India and the rest of the country known as Bharat.

It is nice to read your blog after a long time.