As I finished the last few pages of “English, August, an Indian story”, I found myself feeling exactly as I would during the twilight hours of a great high. I didn’t want it to end, yet I couldn’t stop to keep it for later, all the while without the luxury of rehashing on the same influence in the future. It was turning into a tragedy but ended on a rather pleasant note, which seems a little abrupt if you are not distracted from the surprise. The fact that I have been reading this book for quite some time now, as companions ready to hear out my ‘Augustian’ rants would attest to, is a testimony to the consistency of brilliance that Upamanyu Chatterjee has managed to produce in his virgin novel though not always through a consistency of mood, as was the desired effect, I am sure.
The first time I heard of this book during adulthood was when a friend copy pasted a particularly funny excerpt from the book in an email that he sent a couple of people. To this day, I do not know whether I was in subconscious depression at the time, or whether the erstwhile planet Pluto had aligned itself to my birth planet. Whatever the reason, I decided to buy the book based on that excerpt. Those who know me well, would be extremely surprised by this very unmiddle-class like act which mainly involves buying second hand books and selling them right back. In hindsight, it was a good decision shattering my initial apprehension of doing a book report for fun.
From the very first few pages, I started identifying with the protagonist – a city boy newly instated in the Indian Administrative Service having to move to a smaller town which was a mecca of loneliness. Our worlds were poles apart or at least on the surface. Here I was – a gulf kid still reveling in the hangover of his liberation during the latter two years of college packed away into the heart of the American landscape. Maybe I was reading more into what truly was real, with what I like to refer to as the lovey dovey audience syndrome, and the only things common between us was really our last names and our first initials. Not that it matters, but his mother was Goan Catholic and my Mum is a probashi Bangali having grown up in
What I really liked about the book was whenever Chatterjee dealt into heavier philosophical wonderings; he always preceded and followed such sequences with those with uncanny humor. There is no place for political correctness in ‘English, August’, which is probably what endears it to most of its fans, trapped in a politically correct world. He shamelessly uses August to tell us that it is okay to fantasize about your boss’ wife or to fib a little about yourself with respect to needless details to people who only exist for a few trivial minutes in your life. Chatterjee never preaches, but uses more subtle techniques to speak his mind through August, thus running the risk of appearing crazy to his readers. I quite like his idea of giving the otherwise silently rebellious August ‘conservative’ interests such as affinity to the mainstream Bengali Rabindrasangeet and Nazrulgeeti (thus an affinity to his Bengali roots) and an interest in the Geeta to go hand in hand with Ella Fitsgerald and Marcus Aurilius. Even though he seems to criticize the policies of the Naxal movement showing them under the glow of pseudo-intellectualism at times, there is an underlying, almost grudging respect for the same and the work they have done with the tribal people of
He also does a great job of selling the work of an IAS officer using a round about yet effective approach. Almost throughout the book, he keeps complaining about the job with all its affinity for protocol and pettiness, but towards the end, there are a couple of very nice segments that show us how much power an IAS office actually wields and can engineer a lot of change in the rural areas. Maybe it is a sort of justification for Chatterjee’s own career choice. He also gives us a couple of characters who are honest despite being in this profession, which is rare. Again, you will not find Chatterjee screaming this fact from the rooftops, but mentioning it more subtly in passing. An interesting point to note is that the novel was written in 1988 and yet, people today can identify with it, leading us to believe whether all that jazz about