Sheer Melody

A mole's eye-view of the Cosmos

Satire and Humor at the rawest

This is one of the funniest books I have ever read. And probably the best attempt at humorous and mind-bending satire by an Indian author. It all starts with the name, to be more precise: the comma in the name . What’s the comma supposed to mean, one may ask. Probably two facets of a personality which are at constant loggerheads with each other, in which each facet is confused about the other. English August is a thought-provoking, rollicking ride of the Great Indian bureaucracy and its many foibles through the eyes of a disillusioned but compassionate and wildly cynical individual named Agastya Sen (called English by some of his friends, Ogu by his dad and relatives, and August by other friends).

Spoiler warning (not that it matters greatly, plot details follow)

This is Upamanyu Chatterjee’s first book, published in 1988, and lacks much of the ponderous nature which is somewhat prominent in a lot of the great Indian novels. English August begins simply with Agastya in a car with his friend Dhrubo in Delhi, smoking marijuana and getting stoned. Agastya has qualified the Indian civil services examination (IAS to some) and has been posted as a trainee in a remote, made-up town by the name of Madna, somewhere in central India. He is worried and a little disillusioned, clearly expressed in Dhrubo’s words – You will get hazaar fucked in Madna. Agastya moves to Madna, a terribly hot place, and stays in a dilapidated and crumbling guest house which is a den of mosquitoes where he is fed by an irreverent cook called Vasant who he suspects is feeding him his turds. Agastya lives a sheltered but lonely life in Madna, making acquaintance with the collector of the town, Srivastav and his fat, but surprisingly sexy wife, mostly against his will. The rest of the book is a view of a typical Indian village-town through the eyes of this man, who is perpetually confused about his identity, his Indianness and a lot of the bureaucratic methodology of the civil services. Agastya realizes that the Indian heartland consisting of its myriad villages and people is a total stranger to him, just like it is to a lot of the urban folk. He makes friends with a frog and gives it a name (Dadru), and struggles with the local language in his daily work. He is modern and secular and gives a damn about religion, at the same time, terribly alienated against his own self, which is again reflected in the title of the book, English August. Even though he is named after a famous saint from Indian mythology, pronunciation issues have shortened his name to August, a perennial problem with a lot of Indian names, and a staple feature of pseudo-modern India.

Be it dissociation of a person from his culture, or the feeling of alienation in his own country, the book is a wonderful and amazingly funny critique on the daily musings and thoughts of a very confused man. In fact the confusion of Agastya is exposed beautifully in one of the sentences – There wasn’t a single thought in his head, about which he did not feel confused. The confusion is partly due to the extremely gigantic proportions of alcohol which he drinks and the marijuana which he smokes, and partly due to a lack of self-importance and confidence. All through the book, the author tries to understand and put a name to Agastya’s confusion, and in the process provides a hilarious insight into the working of some of India’s most esteemed offices. What is very refreshing about the book is that Chatterjee makes it very clear through myriad references to very Indian objects, articles and events that this book IS meant for Indian audiences.

Humor is obviously the mainstay of this novella – and mostly irreverent, and wildly satirical humor. Agastya is a blatant liar and likes making up stuff as is evident in the following passage:

Local biggie: Are you into physical exercise?
Agastya: Yes, I once climbed Mount Everest.
Local biggie: Good, you can join our badminton club.

The author writes an assured English, and frequently cluttered with frequent references and additions from Hinglish , a tongue spoken by most people from the northern part of the country. Agastya, as a person is the perfect mirror image of several Indians who are in the same dilemma, or similar kinds of disillusionment. Smoking pot, mostly against his will, is an activity which is done actively but frequently not enjoyed, as is listening to the alien sounds of Keith Jarrett or the imagined sweetness of Tagore. He is unable to find direction, and the will to try and understand any of the official tongue and this perception of the services stays till the end of the book. Frequently toying with the idea of branching into a different profession, Agastya simply goes through the motions of being the Assistant collector, meeting influential people and going to important meetings, sometimes stoned and drunk.

The humor in the book ranges from the comical to the stupid, from the farcical to satire, but rarely does any of the humor come across as forced. And in all the humor, Chatterjee manages to take potshots at an enormous variety of Indian mindsets and vices. Just for example his take on marriages - 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. Each and every view of Chatterjee comes across as a confused thought in Agastya’s mind, and yet is a very perceptive observation on a fallacy, an event or just a tradition.

All in all, the book is a highly recommended one for everyone, and with every reading, it’s possible to discover newer nuances in the way Agastya looks at the world, and thus change your own perspective on things known and unknown. And what’s most important is that, in spite of all the confusion in his mind, his blatant and consistent lying, and his conspicuous lack of self-importance and self-confidence, Agastya manages to endear himself to the reader. So much so, that the reader is a little disappointed at the end, when he realizes that in spite of everything, the bureaucracy is still the same and unchanged, and Agastya is still as confused as he was at the start of the book.

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