Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English August was released by NYRB in the US in 2006. For a novel published in 1988 in India, this release that comes almost two decades too late may be a testament to its continued relevance. Or it could be a testament to the much larger audience that now exists for books about the subcontinent, thanks to business pundits that have plauded its growing economy, mushrooming cities, and expanding workforce since the opening up of the Indian economy in 1991. Reading the book, I could not help being struck by its timelessness. Perhaps it owes this rare distinction to its setting in the small fictional town of Madna (“a dot in the vast hinterland”) that may have changed only cosmetically over the decades; or for that matter la vie bureaucratic that it describes and that has changed to an even lesser extent, at least in popular perception.

Agastya Sen, derisively named English August in school, leaves his comfortable life in New Delhi to move to Madna on a year-long training as a part of his initiation into the administrative mores of civil service. August is shocked and amused by what he observes around him and most of what follows of his social interactions is commentary interspersed with humor that pounces on you without warning. In his moments of isolation, August finds solace in marijuana, Marcus Aurelius, and masturbation. He grows increasingly disinterested in his work, coming up with excuses to avoid it. Stooging lunches off others offers him both delight and respite from the unsavory preparations of the cook at his lodgings.

What is remarkable about the book is not the plot. In an interview, Upamanyu refers to the book’s plotlessness as reflecting the pointlessness of August’s time in Madna. Rather it is his uninhibited writing style that, when he is not obsessing over scatological details, can be refreshingly irreverential and humorous enough to induce laughter. Take this example of a statue outside a meeting hall, and the ensuing conversation between August and his superior, the Collector Srivastav:

Gandhi hall stood beside the city police station, a three-storeyed building. For a moment he thought that it had been bombed, something out of a TV news clip on Beirut, broken window panes, old walls, an uncertain air, a kind of wonder at not having collapsed yet. A red banner over the door, and outside the statue of a fat bespectacled man with a rod coming out of his arse. He asked in wonder, “Is that a statue of Gandhi?”.
Srivastav laughed shrilly, ” Yes. Who do you think?”.
“Phew. What’s the rod, sir?”
Srivastav laughed even more. “That’s to prop up the statue”.

Or consider this comic imagery, set in a gathering at Srivastav’s house where he hosts the collector from a neighboring district and his wife, Mrs. Rajan

Mrs. Rajan leaned forward again, neck tensed, like a conspirator. “But it is so important for India to have the right exposure abroad. One must explode these wretched myths about India, you know, that it’s the land of cringing natives and snake charmers, elephants and Tantric rites. It’s..” she unfisted her hand, like a bud opening in time-lapse photography; perhaps she had hoped to find the telling adjectives in her palm.

In the interview mentioned earlier, Upamanyu, in referring to books about India, says that India tends to be romanticized, and English August is anything but romantic. One rarely encounters ornately descriptive paragraph-length single sentences of the kind that are meant to show off writing ability. Instead, we are served staccato short sentences. As in the lines below that offer comic relief amidst Srivastav’s monologue about futility of having a young man like him from Azamganj read Shakespeare and Wordsworth for the IAS exams.

A bat flew into the room. Srivastav scowled at it. It left

In his introduction, Akhil Sharma mentions that the book has often been described as India’s Catcher in the Rye – a Western coming-of-age novel. The descriptions of the bureaucratic pecking order and life in Madna is secondary to the real focus of the book – August’s sense of restlessness bordering on despair, his dissatisfatcion with his vocation, his search for meaning. “For the mind is restless, Krishna”, he quotes Arjuna in the Gita, “impetuous, self-willed, hard to train: to master the mind seems as difficult as to master the mighty winds.” Only two pages prior to these philosophical ruminations, we encounter August’s friend Bhatia arguing with the rickshaw driver over 2 rupess, till finally the driver relents, but not before spewing a final verbal volley – “When next your father farts, push that 2-rupee note up his arse”.

English, August is unlike any other book that I have read by an Indian author or author of Indian origin. It is unpretentious, original, blatant, on occasions even repulsive, and outright hilarious. The book was adapted into a movie in 1994 that remains unavailable on Netflix and therefore inaccessible by me.

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