Upamanyu Chatterjee’s debut novel, English August, published in 1988, traces the life of Agastya Sen, an ‘IAS’ & a Delhi boy who is posted in an inconspicuous town for his training for a year. The book then chronicles his, part funny part somber and thought provoking journey through the year.
As usual, I will start with the book cover, an empty chair, a desk with some files, a pen, a calling bell and behold…Bananas! There could not have been a better depiction of a government office, the only thing missing is probably Gandhi’s photo on the wall.
The book starts with Agastya or August as he is known amongst friends, smoking marijuana with Dhrubo before his departure for Madna, his home for the next year of IAS training. Needless to say Madna shocks August with its ‘cigarette-and-paan dhabas, disreputable food stalls, cattle and clinging rickshaws’, mosquitoes and of course Vasant ‘s atrocious cooking. He gets ‘Hazar fucked’ as Dhrubo had predicted. The rest of the book moves at a slow pace to reflect August’s slow life in Madna, but no, slow is in no way synonymous with boring here. August’s description of the city, his servant Vasant, the peon Digambar, his neighbor Shankar, The collector Srivastava and his wife [the one who always wears a ‘black bra’], the SP Kuma and the others he encounters, is hilarious. Anyone who has been to a government office, or has had relatives, friends who have worked for the government would find his descriptions just apt. August’s life is so uneventful in Madna that the arrival of a frog in his bathroom becomes a much celebrated affair. The lazy Vasant refuses to drive the frog away and eventually the frog becomes a part of August’s life, so much so that when he back in Madna from Jompanna he seems kind of happy to be reunited with it.
As August goes through his training, he is finds himself utterly disinterested, ‘Lambent Dullness’ in his words. He spends his time learning little and cooking up stories to either excuse himself from meetings or to hide in his room post lunch or deciding how to stooge a dinner off some acquaintance. He makes friends too like, Bhatia, his classmate from College, Mohan, a forester and Sathe a cartoonist with whom he spends time smoking marijuana and venting his frustrations.
The author uses August’s story to talk about a lot of Issues which are the bane of post independent India, like the urbanization of small towns, wherein while we have been quick to build schools, colleges and international hotels, the quality of living of people is far from satisfactory. Beside obnoxious guest houses and Gandhi Statues, we have people dealing with mosquitoes, diseases, lack of sanitation and even proper drinking water, where you can get buffalo dung on your forearm while walking on the road.LikeSrivastav says in the book ‘There must be something wrong with development if it creates places like Madna’. Through August’s stint at BDO Jompanna the author gives us a glimpse of the lopsided development rampant in our country, where funds are spent for political gains. Like August tells Chaudhri when he makes excuses for not being able to send a water tanker to Chipanthi where the only well has dried up ‘Chhopa is the Sabhapati’s village, isn’t it. It’s probably as wet as…’ And of course the book is a scathing account of the highly feudal and incompetent Indian Administrative services. Is that why the ‘IAS’ were called the Brown Sahibs?The author also briefly talks about the Naxal movement as August muses that it is better they left the tribals alone instead to trying to make them ‘Think’
But above all for me it was a coming of age story. Yes, a coming of age story at 24. We see August struggle through the year to fathom what exactly is he doing Madna, he tries to find answers in the Geeta and Marcus Aurelius but fails. He is consumed by his loneliness and restlessness. When he visits Delhi during the Durga Pujas he realizes Dhrubo too is going through the same and has decided to leave his job to prepare for the IAS. August tells his uncle that he simply wants to be ‘happy’ which displeases his uncle a lot. And this is where you relate to August, because at some point of our lives we too go through such a phase, when we wonder whether what we are doing is worth all the effort or if this is what we want to do for the rest of our lives? And that’s where August stays with you.
Do I recommend this book? Yes, it’s a lovely read, it kind of reminded me of summer vacations.It’s a book to be read on a train journey somewhere, simple yet profound, slow yet enjoyable. Do you know what else was fun? guessing the Hindi songs from the English translations of the lyrics that the author has mentioned. I could decipher 3, how about you?