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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



The Mammaries
of the Welfare State


by
Upamanyu Chatterjee


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author



Title: The Mammaries of the Welfare State
Author: Upamanyu Chatterjee
Genre: Novel
Written: 2000
Length: 437 pages
Availability: The Mammaries of the Welfare State is not available in the US or UK
  • The Mammaries of the Welfare State is in print India, but has not been published in the US or UK yet.
  • The Mammaries of the Welfare State is a sequel to English, August (see our review)

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Our Assessment:

B+ : broad satire, somewhat unfocussed -- but sharp

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Hindu A 21/1/2001 Anjana Sharma
The Hindustan Times A 14/1/2001 Soumya Bhattacharya
The Sunday Tribune B+ 7/1/2001 Nirmal Sandhu


  Review Consensus:

  Stinging satire

  From the Reviews:
  • "Mammaries is not for the faint hearted, for those who like their real and fictional worlds sanitised and deodarised. Though a bit repetitive, it is a novel which demands and keeps one's attention not only by its sarcastic asides and inside jokes, but also because it dares to voice a moral outrage that very rarely finds its way into fiction, especially recent Indian English fiction. Read it if you can." - Anjana Sharma, The Hindu

  • "Compared to English August (and one canít help the comparison of a sequel to a prequel) The Mammaries of the Welfare State has a greater breadth, a broader sweep, a far bigger mélange of unforgettable characters. It is also often dark, brooding, even scary. The humour is sometimes all black. Nonetheless, it is unputdownably funny." - Soumya Bhattacharya, The Hindustan Times

  • "It is a hilarious satire. But the issue it focuses on (...) is too serious to be laughed off. It provokes one to realise, how worthless oneís upbringing has been when it comes to facing oneís own country. (...) The author could have spared the reader some 100 pages containing unnecessary details which make his mockery of the system less effective. You need tonnes of patience and disgust with official wrong-doings to carry on with the book till the end." - Nirmal Sandhu, The Sunday Tribune

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       So Agastya Sen, whose first year in the Indian Administrative Service is recounted in English, August (see our review), did indeed stick it out in the government bureaucracy. Like author Chatterjee, he has become a veteran of the IAS, a servant of the great Welfare State (that is India).
       The Mammaries of the Welfare State picks up some seven or eight years after the time of English, August. Agastya has not found happiness. Indeed, in the opening passage of the novel we learn that: "Agastya was so enervated by his life in the city that ever so often, when he was alone," he found himself "shutting his eyes and weeping silently."
       Somewhat beaten down, Agastya is not entirely broken. Indeed, in outlook and approach he is much like his younger self. Sure, some things have changed: "As for dope, though governance couldn't wean it him off it, it did manage to influence his mode of intake." Agastya now brews cannabis in his morning tea and stuffs "pellets of hashish into his post-lunch paans" in order to help him float through the day.
       He is constantly confronted (and assaulted) by the absurdities of bureaucratic life around him. Most seem to have adjusted to the situation better than Agastya has:

He could find an example of lunacy wherever he looked in the Welfare State, but no one else seemed to bother, most found it funny or pleasantly incomprehensible.
       Nutsyanyaya, he calls it, and examples abound throughout the book. Indeed, it is a book about Nutsyanyaya, the essentially impenetrable monolith of omnipresent bureaucracy that has taken on a life of its own and does more bad (or rather: irrelevant) than good. From the trivial -- Agastya reminds his subordinates, for example, of the correct method of reusing envelopes (they should be turned inside-out) -- to the largest scale (wholesale uprooting of neighborhoods, etc.), the Welfare State functions (if one can say that it does) in mysterious ways. Agastya hasn't completely given up: he closes a circular with the reminder: "There is always room for improvement -- even when one doesn't want it." Still, it does not look good.
       Day-to-day life is frustrating, even for someone ensconced within the administration of the Welfare State such as Agastya. "I'm a girder of the Steel Frame, okay ?" Agastya reminds others by way of explanation why he shouldn't get the usual runaround. But it is hopeless -- the Welfare State is a mystery within and without and getting things done is pretty much last on the list of everyone's priorities. As he is reminded:
Self-interest is the only commandment -- naturally -- of the Welfare State, the rest is waffle.
       Life in the city is not good. The Mammaries of the Welfare State begins with Agastya finding himself with a "Housing problem" (so the title of the first chapter). He does manage to get himself assigned a room in the official Guest House (with "a spectacular view of both the garbage dump and the slum" -- the garbage dump being nothing less that "the world's largest"), but he finds himself sharing these quarters with six strangers. While the two who use his bed in his absence do vacate it when Agastya is there, it is a less than ideal arrangement. Agastya happens to have worked with Menon, the "Deputy Secretary (Personnel Housing)" eight years earlier in Madna, but given that despite his position it took Menon three years before he could allot himself his own (very fancy) flat, things don't look promising for Agastya. In fact, the housing situation gets considerably worse.
       At least Agastya finds some female company to keep (and with it a place to spend at least a few nights a week): he becomes involved with Daya, who runs the Softsell ad agency. Daya even offers him a position, but Agastya remains devoted to bureaucracy .....
       The housing problems are finally solved when Agastya is appointed Collector for Madna, his old haunt and training ground, currently plagued by nothing less than the actual plague.
       Madna -- ghastly, insignificant Madna, 1400 kilometres from Delhi, familiar to readers of English, August -- "is representative of ten thousand other small towns and five hundred other districts in a land of a billion people." It is more provincial than the big city, and the goings on perhaps even wilder.
       In Madna, in particular, but also throughout the novel Chatterjee indulges in local and national politics (with Agastya out of sight for long sections), adding to his Indian tableau. The Welfare State's first family, the Aflatoons, in particular, are prominent figures.
       Agastya escapes Madna and gets sent around elsewhere to pretend to do his duties. He even manages to get sent on a training course in France, a huge but much underappreciated perk. As Madame Europe Olympia says disappointedly to Agastya: "Over the years, your country's record, its performance, at the Institute has been abysmal." But Agastya is not surprised -- and does nothing to improve the Welfare State's reputation.
       Agastya himself only survives his job because he carefully balances work with as much leave as he can afford to get away with. But even here the Welfare State makes life complicated for him.
       Other complications in his life include his love life. A number of fathers are interested in marrying their daughters off to him, despite his best efforts to ward them off. And then there is Daya: "They were both by nature composed, self-centered and unhappy." It does not seem like a promising romance -- and even the sex isn't completely satisfying (though it often leaves Agastya quite breathless). Still, his ambiguous feelings towards Daya don't prevent Agastya from making a spectacularly ill-fated marriage proposal.

       The Mammaries of the Welfare State is more a collection of loose episodes than a carefully structured novel. There's lots of drifting (appropriate to the subject matter), and characters fade in and out of view (and focus).
       Still, Chatterjee's satire is sharp, and his lingering over various politician's sagas and descriptions of futile attempts at getting anything done are enjoyable. He picks at all parts of the Welfare State, and he does so well. And he has a sharp eye regarding character, getting the various bureaucrats, peons, politicians, and businessmen just right. Even the asides and casual observations are nicely done (and spot-on):
Neither father nor son had retained his original caste-revealing surname for the obvious reason that for the legerdemain of politics, one travels light.
       The Welfare State -- contemporary India -- offers many targets, and Chatterjee goes after what seems like most of them. Far more often than not he is on target. The critique is not angry or dry: there is frustration, but also humour throughout.
       Agastya is no pure do-gooder, but he at least is a voice against the madness. Frustrated, for example, that various signs -- in government buildings as well as on roads -- are put up by illiterates (who therefore have no idea what the signs say, and can't know whether they are putting them in the correct place) he notes:
We won't make it, you know, as a nation until -- to take only one instance -- the people who put up our road signs and the people who need to use them, to decipher them from their cars, are the same.
       A solid (and occasionally searing) critique, The Mammaries of the Welfare State is also an enjoyable if sometimes too-broad entertainment. One wishes for a stronger narrative thread, but the writing is good, the satire on target, and the humour sharp.

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Links:

The Mammaries of the Welfare State: Reviews: Upamanyu Chatterjee: Other books by Upamanyu Chatterjee under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Indian literature at the complete review

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About the Author:

       Indian author Upamanyu Chatterjee was born in 1959. He has written several novels, and has worked for the Indian Administrative Service since 1983.

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