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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

English, August

Upamanyu Chatterjee

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To purchase English, August

Title: English, August
Author: Upamanyu Chatterjee
Genre: Novel
Written: 1988
Length: 288 pages
Availability: English, August - US
English, August - UK
English, August - Canada
Les après-midi d'un fonctionnaire très déjanté - France
  • An Indian Story
  • See also the sequel, The Mammaries of the Welfare State (see our review)
  • The new (2006) NYRB edition comes with an Introduction by Akhil Sharma
  • English, August was made into a film in 1994 by Dev Benegal

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Our Assessment:

A- : entertaining, well-written, comic look at contemporary India

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Boston Globe . 9/4/2006 Katherine A. Powers
The NY Times Book Rev. A 2/7/2006 Akash Kapur
The Observer . 12/6/1988 .
Punch . 17/6/1988 Adam Lively
TLS . 15/7/1988 .
The Washington Post . 23/4/2006 Michael Dirda

  From the Reviews:
  • "This is a very funny novel, but a humane one as well. The unattractiveness of the supercilious brat through whose eyes we observe immense poverty and filth lends poignancy to the people whose lives are immersed in these conditions, rather than making them the object of sport." - Katherine A. Powers, Boston Globe

  • "His 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." - Akash Kapur, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Upamanyu Chatterjee's affectionate yet unsparing slacker view of modern India. (...) Most novels progress, but this one simply chronicles an ongoing anomie and spiritual restlessness. (...) Chatterjee, though, excels in his descriptions of Indian life." - Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

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:

       English, August is the story of young civil servant Agastya ("August") Sen. Joining the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) -- which author Chatterjee himself joined at the same age, in 1983 -- Agastya is sent off "for a year's training in district administration to a small district town called Madna." The only claim to much of any fame for the place is that it is almost invariably a contender for the title of hottest place in India. Temperature wise, that is -- decidedly not popularity-, action-, or other-wise
       In the opening scene, Agastya's friend (and fellow marijuana-smoker) Dhrubo tells him: "I've a feeling, August, you're going to get hazaar fucked in Madna", which sets much of the tone of the novel. Not just as far as the plot goes, but also as to the mix of cultures. As Agastya explains (unnecessarily, really, but it is one of Chatterjee's few slips):

'Amazing mix, the English we speak. Hazaar fucked. Urdu and American,' Agastya laughed, 'a thousand fucked, really fucked. I'm sure nowhere else could languages be mixed and spoken with such ease.'
       Chatterjee writes both an assured English (except for this curiously stilted, over-explained opening) and Hinglish (carefully dosing the latter). He utilizes local linguistic usage well in presenting this tale. The mix of modern and traditional, urban and rural, foreign and national -- all also reflected in the characters' speech -- is central to the novel.
       The language-mix is not taken to much excess: an educated Bengali, Agastya (and those he encounters) stay well within the bounds of the comprehensible for non-Indians. (The English Faber and Faber edition also helpfully supplies a glossary of some sixty terms at the end. Example: "hazaar - a thousand, but used generally in the sense of a lot".)
       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 -- Agastya, often affable but generally choosing to remain an outsider too, more than most. The changes in society are even more pronounced when seen from Madna, a small place of extremes (not just heat) that obviously can't quite keep up with the fast-paced life and changes in the big cities.
       Agastya has chosen to join the enormous bureaucracy that runs India, the IAS. It is an easy target for satire, and Chatterjee does not waste the opportunity. Agastya is an unlikely bureaucrat, and he doesn't strain himself to fit in. He lies intemperately, inventing wild stories at the spur of the moment (and leading to considerable confusion, as he offers a variety of contradictory information). He smokes pot -- "often against his will". He masturbates. He does what he has to do at his job, but that really isn't all that much. He goes through the motions -- travelling, dealing with officials and visitors -- but most of what he does still seems to baffle him.
       Agastya is still a youth, trying to find meaning and direction. "I've become your American, taking a year off after college to discover himself", Agastya writes to Dhrubo at the end of his year in Madna, and the training-year is, indeed, very much like that. There are moments of discovery: Agastya begins to have some sense of what is important and what is of interest to him. There are no absolutes, no certainties, but perhaps an outline that grows more distinct. So, for example:
Eventually, he knew, he would marry, perhaps not out of passion, but out of convention, which was probably a safer thing. And then, in either case, in a few months or years they would tire of disagreeing with each other, or what was more or less the same thing, would be inured to each other's odd and perhaps disgusting ways, the way she squeezed the tube of toothpaste and the way he drank from a glass and didn't rinse it, and they would slide into a placid and comfortable unhappiness, and maybe unseeingly watch TV every day, each still a cocoon
       Agastya is restless, and he does consider escape from Madna and a career in the IAS. He flees, briefly, back to the big city, and considers taking a job in publishing. But he does return to stick it out in Madna.
       There Agastya finds: "Reading was impossible, with his mind in its state of quiet tumult." Marcus Aurelius' Meditations "turned out to be (very incongruously, he thought) his only reading." The choice is not so incongruous after all, the self-deluding emperor a proper example for Agastya:
He lied, but he lied so well, this sad Roman who had also looked for happiness in living more than one life, and had failed, but with such grace.
       There are numerous smaller and larger episodes and encounters: the bizarre demands and (mal)functions of bureaucracy, the people one has to deal with. There are women, friends, family -- especially his prominent father. Agastya is basically still drifting, unwilling -- and unable -- to commit himself fully to anything. Chatterjee presents this very sympathetically; the Weltschmerz is not annoying, and Agastya fortunately does not take himself too seriously.
       The book is a satire, the humour veering from the blunt and crude to the delicate. Still, little of the comedy comes across as too forced -- and much of it is very funny indeed. Much of the humour is almost as if incidental, the obvious consequence of the absurdities all around.
       Chatterjee also has a fairly deft touch, mixing the absurd with the poignant, the slapstick with the clever. Agastya's second cousin, Tonic, the publisher, who "functions as though he's paid to be a leaking balloon, emit hot air", though repeatedly skewered, is easily deflated in a single exchange, for example:
    'Ah. India lives in its villages, a terrible cliché that, but really very true, like all clichés. Wittgenstein, wasn't it, who said that India lives in its villages ?'
    'No, Gandhi.'
       Chatterjee's wry tone fits well with his laid-back protagonist. Reality around him is decidedly odd, and he has little interest in confronting it head-on. Marijuana, masturbation, daydreams, and Marcus Aurelius' Meditations are, for now, still preferable, even as they further warp his perception of the world around him.
       A funny and surprisingly touching story, well-presented. The writing is not always consistent, but the lapses are relatively few: most of it is very good indeed. Recommended.

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English, August: Reviews: English, August - the film: Upamanyu Chatterjee: Other books by Upamanyu Chatterjee under review: Other books of interest under 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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