PDF | On Jan 1, , Krushna Chandra Mishra and others published Upamanyu Chatterjee's English, August – A Post-colonial. NEW YORK REvIEW bOOKS. New York. ENGLISH, AUGUST. An Indian Story. UPAMANYU CHATTERJEE. Introduction by. AKHIL SHARMA. Editorial Reviews. From Publishers Weekly. Chatterjee's slacker bildungsroman, first published English, August: An Indian Story by [Chatterjee, Upamanyu].
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The very title of Upamanyu Chatterjee's novel English August: An Indian Story lays great might have otherwise been Indian Agastya: An English Story. The. English, August by Upamanyu Chatterjee. 'Agastya's story is convincing, entertaining, moving—and timeless. It merits an accolade that's far. Reading the Uninteresting: Upamanyu. Chatterjee's English, August: An Indian Story. The only obligation to which in advance we may hold a novel is that.
Agastya is one of the funniest characters in Indian fiction and one of the saddest. His mother died when he was a child, which may have helped to make him the deeply lonely person he is. Part of the reason that he cannot bear Madna is that his isolation there makes that loneliness unignorable.
Talking to colleagues, Agastya even invents a wife for himself, and this stupid, conceivably self-destructive falsehood is not just pointless but poignant. Because Agastya's life is littered with missing people: the dead mother, but also an absent father off in Bengal, being the governor, it turns out; the father communicates with Agastya through letters that are both aloof and disappointed , a possible girlfriend gone off to graduate school in America, and a Hindu saint.
Unsettled and restless in Delhi, Agastya is almost paralyzed with misery in Madna, where his colleagues repel him as grotesque, while such friends as he finds there strike him as even more to be pitied than himself. Because of all this, and for all his wisecracks, the question Agastya is struggling to put to himself is, Why am I so unhappy?
The way the question is raised and the way it is resolved connect English, August to the Western coming-of-age novel it has been described as India's Catcher in the Rye while also marking it as distinctively Indian. The sense of inauthenticity Agastya suffers from feels very Western so much so that one might be tempted to dismiss it for a while as a citified affectation. This inauthenticity, by the way, is what is captured by the novel's somewhat puzzling title.
Agastya is an old-fashioned kind of name it comes from a mythological Hindu guru which is why Agastya's friends have taken the liberty of Englishifying it into August, or even, going a step further, simply calling him English. Agastya, in short, seems un-Indian to them, and to himself as well at times. That hardly makes him English, though, as he is perfectly aware.
Inauthentically Indian, inauthentically Western: in Madna this crisis of identity comes to a head. What feels oddly and specifically Indian to me is the resolution of the crisis.
The resolution is not the breaking away that Agastya has been contemplating all along, and it's not a reconciliation. It's not a renunciation either. It's not even exactly a decision. In any case, Agastya does not surrender his independence or his native wit.
But there is a change, an acceptance, that the reader cannot miss. An acceptance of necessity by virtue of which Agastya is set free. There's an Indian saying that if you want to keep a secret you should put it in a book. It's all the more amazing, then, that when English, August was first published in India in it was an enormous best seller.
The reason English, August was such a popular success probably has to do with the Indian Administrative Service. In India to belong to the IAS is a little like being a movie star. Each year approximately two million people take the exam for eighty entry-level IAS positions. One of the lowest rungs of the IAS is district collector.
Agastya is an assistant to a collector, though it is assumed that in time he will become one himself. A district is the equivalent of an American county, and the district collector runs or has great influence over the district's judicial, police, and administrative functions. The IAS is considered to be honest for the most part, though there is a joke that if you become an IAS officer you can earn so much money through corruption that your family will have enough to eat for seven generations.
The book was so spot-on that it didn't surprise me in the least that many of them complained about it. I read the book over and over and found comfort in Chatterjee's observations of the world I was living in, the sound of lizards plopping off the ceiling and falling to the floor, the squabbling among adults as to who gets to sit in the front passenger seat.
Chatterjee has followed English, August with three further novels The Last Burden, which was published in , The Mammaries of the Welfare State in , and Weight Loss in while continuing to pursue his career in the civil service. A character in English, August talks about how each language has a "tang" and that it is hard to translate this very specific flavor.
That, of course, is true of the work of our best writers as well. Upamanyu Chatterjee has his own "tang" and it is like nobody else's. One Through the windshield they watched the wide silent road, so well-lit and dead.
New Delhi, one in the morning, a stray dog flashed across the road, sensing prey. So when shall we meet again? Nor that parting was too agonizing and that he couldn't bear to leave the car, but that marijuana caused acute lethargy.
Dhrubo put the day's forty-third cigarette to his lips and seemed to take very long to find his matchbox. His languorous attempts to light a match became frenzied before he succeeded. Watching him Agastya laughed silently.
Dhrubo exhaled richly out of the window, and said, 'Ive a feeling, August, you're going to get hazaar fucked in Madna. Agastya had just joined the Indian Administrative Service and was going for a year's training in district administration to a small district town called Madna.
English, August : an Indian story
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.
The slurred sounds of the comfortable tiredness of intoxication, '''You look hazaar fucked, Marmaduke dear. Yes Dorothea, I'm afraid I do feel hazaar fucked see, doesn't work. And our accents are Indian, but we prefer August to Agastya.
When I say our accents, I, of course, exclude yours, which is unique in its fucked mongrelness you even say Have a nice day to those horny women at your telephones when you pass by with your briefcase, and when you agree with your horrendous boss, which is all the time, you say yeah, great and uh-uh. That was a ten-yearold joke from their school-days in Darjeeling, when they had been envious of some of the Anglo-Indian boys who spoke and behaved differently, and did alarmingly badly in exams and didn't seem to mind, they were the ones who were always with the Tibetan girls and claimed to know all about sex.
On an early summer afternoon, in the small football field among the hills, with an immaculate sky and the cakelike whiteand-brownness of Kanchanjanga, Agastya and Prashant had been watching Agastya disliked football and Prashant disliked games the usual showing off with the ball. Shouts in the air from the Anglos which increased whenever any Tibetan female groups passed the field, echoing like a distant memory, Pass it here, men! This way, men! You can't shoot, your foot's made of turd or what men!
Agastya had never heard any Anglo say man. He and Prashant had been lazily cynical about those who shouted the most and whose faces also contorted with a secret panic in the rare moments when the ball did reach them. Then some Tibetan girls had come together and taken out a fucking guitar. The Tibs and the Anglos always have guitars, Prashant had said. Football had been abandoned. Then laughter and twanging. It's the colour of the Anglo and Tib thighs, Prashant had said, not like us.
Agastya's envy had then blurted out, he wished he had been Anglo-Indian, that he had Keith or Alan for a name, that he spoke English with their accent. From that day his friends had more new names for him, he became the school's last Englishman, or just hey English his friends meant hey Anglo but didn't dare , and sometimes even hello Mother Tongue illogical and whimsical, but winsome choices, like most names selected by contemporaries.
And like most names, they had paled with the passage of time and place, all but August, but they yet retained with them the knack of bobbing up out of some abyss on the unexpected occasion, and nudging a chunk or two of his past.
A truck roared by, shattering the dark. Out there in Madna quite a few people are going to ask you what you're doing in the Administrative Service. Because you don't look the role.
You look like a porn film actor, thin and kinky, the kind who wears a bra. And a bureaucrat ought to be soft and cleanshaven, bespectacled, and if a Tamil Brahmin, given to rapid quoting of rules.
I really think you're going to get hazaar fucked.
I'd much rather act in a porn film than be a bureaucrat. But I suppose one has to live. Let's smoke a last one, shall we, said Dhrubo, picking up the polythene bag from the car seat.
English, August - Upamanyu Chatterjee
In Yale a Ph. D wasn't a joke. It meant something.
It was significant. Students thought before they enrolled.
But here in Delhi, allover India, Dhrubo threw some loose tobacco out of the window, education is biding time, a meaningless accumulation of degrees, BA, MA, then an M. So many people every year seem to find government service so interesting, he paused to scratch his elbow, I wonder how many people think about where their education is leading them.
Yet you returned from Yale, Agastya yawned. But mine is not the typical Indian story. That ends with the Indian living somewhere in the First World, comfortably or uncomfortably. Or perhaps coming back to join the Indian Administrative Service, if lucky. You're wrong about education, though. Most must be like me, with no special aptitude for anything, not even wondering how to manage, not even really thinking.
Try your luck with everything, something hopefully will click. There aren't unlimited opportunities in the world. They smoked. Dhrubo leaned forward to drop loose tobacco from his shirt. Madna was the hottest place in India last year, wasn't it? It will be another world, completely different. Should be quite educative. Dhrubo handed the smoke to Agastya. Excellent stuff. What'll you do for sex and marijuana in Madna? Two By the fastest train Madna was eighteen hours away from Delhi, but of course the fastest train simply shrieked its way through it.
As the train that did stop at Madna slipped out of New Delhi Agastya waved to his uncle and then locked himself in the toilet to smoke some more marijuana. His compartment had another traveller for Madna, an engineer in some thermal power station. Desultory train conversation began, and Agastya was soon asked to categorize himself. What kind of a name is Agastya? He was a large unpleasant man, the owner of a trunk that wouldn't fit below the lower berths, but on which he wouldn't allow anyone to place his feet.
He's a saint of the forest in the Ramayana, very ascetic. He gives Ram a bow and arrow. He's there in the Mahabharata, too. He crosses the Vindhyas and stops them from growing. The engineer looked dissatisfied, almost suspicious, as though Agastya had just sold him an aphrodisiac.
He interrupted Agastya again, almost immediately, squeaking with surprise. Excuse me, IAS? You are IAS? You don't look like an IAS officer. He eyed him doubtfully. You don't even look Bengali, pronounced Bungaali. Agastya was only half-Bengali. His mother had been Goanese, a Catholic. He hardly remembered her, she had died of meningitis when he had been less than three.
He was athlete-thin and bearded. He had no devouring interests, and until he came to Madna, very little ambition. Outside the Indian hinterland rushed by. Hundreds of kilometres of a familiar yet unknown landscape, seen countless times through train windows, but never experienced his life till then had been profoundly urban. Shabby stations of small towns where the train didn't stop, the towns that looked nice from a train window, incurious patient eyes and weatherbeaten bicycles at a level crossing, muddy children and buffalo at a waterhole.
To him, these places had been, at best, names out of newspapers, where floods and caste wars occurred, and entire Harijan families were murdered, where some prime minister took his helicopter just after a calamity, or just before the elections. Now he looked out at this remote world and felt a little unsure, he was going to spend months in a dot in this hinterland. The train was four hours late, they reached Madna after dark. A small tube-lit station, stray dogs, a few coolies, a man selling rusks and tea, a family of beggars arguing in an unfamiliar tongue around the taps.
A sweating swarthy man came up to him and mumbled something. He smiled and said in Hindi, Will you speak Hindi, please. I'll take some time to pick up the language. In Madna, IAS was always to be attached to his name; it almost became his surname. In the jeep he realized how stifling it was. Where am I staying? The Government Rest House, sir, said the swarthy man from behind. He was a naib tehsildar, he had said.
Whatever that was, Agastya had thought. Accommodation for government officers is a problem in Madna, sir, said the man. For a year Agastya was to move from one room in a Rest House a suite it was called, for some reason, and pronounced soot to some other room in some other Rest House homelessness of a kind.
Glimpses of Madna en route; cigarette-and-paan dhabas, disreputable food stalls, both lit by fierce kerosene lamps, cattle and clanging rickshaws on the road, and the rich sound of trucks in slush from an overflowing drain; he felt as though he was living someone else's life.
His education began on the first evening itself. The room at the Rest House was big, and furnished not like a room, but like a house. It had a bed, a dressing table, a dining table with four chairs, a sofa, two armchairs, a desk and chair, two small tables and a beautiful bookshelf. The room looked like the storehouse of a dealer in stolen furniture. Why all this furniture? I don't need all this. With the naib tehsildar was a grey-stubbled sullen man, the caretakercook of the Rest House.
He spoke Hindi with great reluctance. There were children at the door, in various sizes; all seemed to breathe through their mouths. What's a sofa doing here? For guests, sir. No, take it away. Far too many things in here, I don't need all this.
Can't you remove some? They did eventually, their faces and forearms tense with disconcertment. They called others for help.
They dragged the bed under the fan. Agastya sweated, directed them in Hindi, and felt the mosquitoes. Isn't there any insecticide that we can spray? Vasant, the caretaker-cook, looked at him murderously over the back of a sofa. Yes, sir, horrible mosquitoes here, smiled the naib tehsildar. They sprayed the room with Flit. Vasant brought dinner almost immediately after, on a tray. The naib tehsildar hovered at the door, never failing to show something of himself to Agastya, a shoulder, a shoe, a leg, and each portion of his body saying, There, I hope you continue to feel uneasy and strange.
Dinner was unbelievable, the dal tasted like lukewarm chillied shampoo. The tang of Flit in his nostrils, he was awed by the thought of months in which every meal would taste like this. Is this the usual way you cook? He finally communicated the question to Vasant through the naib tehsildar. Vasant said yes. Then the naib tehsildar said that the Collector had told him to tell the cook to boil Agastya's drinking water as there was endemic jaundice and epidemic cholera in Madna, and that he had already done so and that may he now take his leave, sir.
Ten o'clock. Agastya was on the veranda outside his room. Around the tubelight wheeled a hundred different insects. The frequent plop of careless lizards falling on the floor. His room was one of two in a kind of cottage. The other room was silent, locked. Other similar cottages, and feet away the large Circuit House. A few lights on in the compound, two jeeps outside the Circuit House.
He was 1, kilometres away from Delhi, and more than a thousand from Calcutta, the two cities of his past. Before going to bed he lit an anti-mosquito incense stick under the table and rubbed mosquito repellent cream all over himself. He slept under a mosquito net, but the mosquitoes got him anyway. He surfaced, struggling, out of sleep thrice that night, only to hear the mosquitoes droning in the glow from the veranda.
On his first morning in Madna he woke up feeling terrible feeling fucked, he later wrote to Neera in Calcutta, like the fallen Adam. He found opening his eyes difficult, then realized that the mosquitoes had reached his eyelids too. Some start to the day, he looked at the wooden ceiling and said to himself, if your very first emotion of the morning is disgust. He looked at the mirror. Two red swollen spots on his right cheek, above the beard, one below his left ear.
Calcutta's mosquitoes seemed more civilized, they never touched the face. This place has drawn first blood, he thought, wasn't elephantiasis incurable? He stepped out to ask Vasant for some tea. Beyond the veranda the other buildings were turning white with the glare. The sun seemed to char his head and neck. Eight fifteen in the morning and he could almost sense the prickly heat spring up on his skin. And yet this was late summer. The year before Madna had topped the charts, as it were, had been the hottest place in India.
It had a few traditional rivals in the Indian Deccan but every year Madna's residents were almost always sure that their town and district would be hotter than those. In salutation and to be fair, to avoid sunstroke , the residents tied a towel or a napkin over their ears and head at eight in the morning and took it off after sundown.
Later he tied one too, quite enjoying himself, even getting himself photographed in his hood. And later still, he would think, that those who saw menace in an Indian summer, and called the sun angry and pitiless, and enervating, and words like that, merely reduced the sun to a petty anthropomorphic jumbo. Of course the heat did weaken the calves and dehydrate the head, but the sun, like so many things in Madna, was educative. It taught him the aphorisms of common sense: don't fight the processes of nature, it seemed to say; here, stay indoors as much as you can, if possible turn nocturnal.
The world outside is not worth journeying out for, and any beauty out of doors is visible only in the dark, or in the half-light of dawn. If Madna had been Delhi, and the weather less hot, and if he'd woken up earlier, he would have gone for his run. He had been a competent long-distance runner in his college days. Running seemed to clear his mind and start the day well.
But he returned to his room and wondered if he should smoke a joint. After all the jeep wouldn't come for him till eleven. While wondering he made one and smoked it anyway. Then he put on Tagore's Shyama on his cassette recorder and lay down to contemplate the room. He had to get organized, unpack properly and think a little, maybe smoke less, because there was something dangerous in smoking alone, and in an unknown place.
The room was at least big, he liked that. High up on the wall facing him, amid the lizards, hung what he would later call the usual improbable Rest-House painting a sunset, and water, and therefore two sunsets, a boat, a boatman in a Japanese conical hat, on the shore two trees, like giant mushrooms.
As he went higher, he relaxed more, and grew more amazed, in an objective way, at the absence of imagination in the painting. He tried to visualize the painter, and couldn't. He thought, had the painter been brushing his teeth or bending over trying to get his cock in his mouth, or what, when he painted this one? There wasn't a single thought behind a single brushstroke. Irritated, he got up, climbed a chair and took down the painting.
At the back, beneath the cobwebs and dust of years, he read, in ink turned brown, Donated to the Madna Circuit House, my unwanted second home, by me, R. Below this was a tremendous poem, again in brown. Now the painting looked different, and a little less ridiculous; this was the Goa of an imagination forlorn, not perhaps accustomed to creativity, but compelled to it by isolation. Suddenly Agastya thought that he could see Tamse better. He would be short, plump, but not worried at all about his weight, and therefore very slightly complacent, gentle, and not quite relaxed in the company of people like Agastya.
In a room and place like this, certainly not given to marijuana or inventive masturbation or hunting for sex, Tamse, what would he have done. Perhaps many had convinced him that he painted and wrote well; his father might have said, in the language of proud fathers, You must always have these as a second string to your bow.
Tamse had been lonely but had not given in, had recreated in his wilderness an image of home. Perhaps those mushroom trees and sunsets were a view from his window, perhaps boatmen really did wear Japanese conical hats in Goa.
He turned the painting over and over, relating the brushstrokes to the poem. He liked my old life and my spouse; at least Tamse admitted to missing his wife, some others would have been shy of this. He was sentimental too, otherwise he would not have donated the painting. Despite the nullity of talent, it was still an attempt to share a mood and an experience.
He smiled at the blue walls and thought, they just might grow on me too. A rapid but timid knock on the door, like the scurrying of some rodent. A small black man in the white khadi of a peon. He was Digambar, the peon attached to Agastya for his stay.
Here, said Agastya, just clean this painting and put it back. At eleven, still stoned, he went to the Collectorate to meet R. District administration in India is largely a British creation, like the railways and the English language, another complex and unwieldy bequest of the Raj.
But Indianization of a method of administration, or of a language is integral to the Indian story. Before the Collector was almost inaccessible to the people; now he keeps open house, primarily because he does a different, more difficult job.
He is as human and as fallible, but now others can tell him so, even though he still exhibits the old accoutrements but now Indianized of importance the flashing orange light on the roof of the car, the passes for the first row at the sitar recital, which will not start until he arrives and for which he will not arrive until he has ensured by telephone that everyone else who has been invited has arrived first.
In Madna, as in all of India, one's importance as an official could be gauged by how long one could keep a concert to which one was invited waiting. The organizers never minded this of the officials they invited.
Perhaps they expected it of them, which was sickening, or perhaps they were humouring them, which was somehow worse. And administration is an intricate business, and a young officer who lacks initiative cannot really be trained in its artifices. There is very little that he can learn from watching someone else; Agastya learnt nothing. For a very short while he worried about his ignorance, and then decided to worry about it properly when others discovered it.
The Collectorate of Madna was one building among many in a vast field which could not be called a compound, for it had no wall or gate near the railway station. He had missed them all in the dark of the previous evening. The jeep inched its way through people and cattle on to an untarred metalled road.
He saw a few flags against the hot clean sky. The national flag, he presumed, was over the Collectorate. What are the other buildings? That's the office of the Superintendent of Police, sir, said the naib tehsildar from behind, and over there are the Police Lines. Whatever they are, thought Agastya. That's the District and Sessions Court, and behind, there, that big one, the District Council You mean, on which there's also the national flag?
And then that side, behind, the offices of the SubDivisional Officer, tehsildar, et cetera. While the naib tehsildar was pointing out the buildings the driver nearly ran over a child defecating beside the road, and snarled at her in the vernacular. On their left was some kind of pond, with thick green water and the heads of contented buffalo.
Scores of people, sitting on their haunches, smoking, wandering, gazing at anything moving or at other people. Most were in white dhoti, kurta and Gandhi cap or was it Nehru cap? No, Gandhi cap and Nehru jacket. Or Gandhi jacket and Nehru cap?
And Patel vest? And Mountbatten lungi and Rajaji shawl and Tagore dhoti? The jeep chugged through them, honking petulantly. The people sitting on the road stood up and moved away at the last moment, reluctantly, some scowled. For them the road was the one stretch that the rains of Madna wouldn't immediately turn to mud; therefore it was a place of assemblage. They cover their heads because of the heat, no?
Yes, sir. It seemed wise, to bother not about appearance, but first about health. He tried his handkerchief over his head but it was too small. The naib tehsildar chuckled appreciatively. Too small, sir. Napkins easily available in the market, sir. If sir wants I'll get one. Yes, thanks, please do that. How much will it cost? Not to worry about price, sir. Rubbish, said Agastya, and offered him a twenty-rupee note.
The naib tehsildar raised his hands to ward off the horror. No, sir, not to bother, sir, hardly must, sir. What could he mean? He reached over and, ignoring the naib tehsildar's giggles and soft shrieks, put the note in his shirt pocket, among the spectacle case, papers and pens.
In all those months he never got used to the crowds outside the offices. All these people have work here? Yes, sir, said the naib tehsildar, a little surprised, perhaps at the stupidity of the question.
They all looked patient, as though waiting for entrance to the political rally of some awesome demagogue, Nehru perhaps, or one of his descendants. To him they also looked stoned. Their eyes were glazed, probably with waiting, and followed every movement around them without curiosity.
Just near the Collectorate he saw cannabis growing wild. That was nice and, he smiled, somehow symbolic. He would have to return alone one evening.
The Collectorate was a one-storey stone building. Its corridors had benches and more people. The naib tehsildar led him to a biggish hall full of mostly unoccupied desks, and through another door. A fat officious man said, Yes? The naib tehsildar mumbled something and the officious man immediately turned servile. Good morning, sir.
Collector saab not yet come, sir. Myself Chidambaram, Reader to Collector. Kindly accompany me to RDC's room sir. They moved through another door and down a central corridor, also crowded with people, benches and water coolers. Another door, with C. Joshi, RDC above it. There were three men inside, Chidambaram mumbled something.
They all stood and shook hands, the two younger ones called him sir. All introduced themselves, Agastya didn't catch a single name, and didn't bother. Thank God for marijuana, he thought. Formal pleasant conversation, someone brought in thick sweet tea, which the others drank from their saucers.
After some slow haphazard guesswork he decided that the man on his right was Ahmed. Joshi was, or should be, the old jovial man behind the desk. On his right was what had sounded like Agarwal. Ahmed was immediately obnoxious, with blank eyes and a false smile.
He never listened when anyone else was speaking, but always looked down at his thick forearms and flexed them. Whatever that was, thought Agastya, but nodded with what he hoped was appropriate awe. He eventually got to know, but by accident as it were, what a Deputy Collector Direct Recruit was, and where a naib tehsildar stood in the Revenue hierarchy.
He himself made no effort to know his new world; as it unfolded, it looked less interesting to him; and later, even to see how far he could extend his ignorance became an obscure and perverse challenge. Sitting with the three men, he was again assailed by a sense of the unreal. I don't look like a bureaucrat, what am I doing here.
I should have been a photographer, or a maker of ad films, something like that, shallow and urban. How old are you, sir? Agastya was twenty-four, but he was in a lying mood. He also disliked their faces. Are you married, sir?
Again that demand that he classify himself. Ahmed leaned forward for each question, neck tensed and head angled with politeness. He wondered for a second whether he should add twice.
And your Mrs, sir?
Agarwal's voice dropped at Mrs; in all those months all references to wives were in hushed, almost embarrassed, tones. Agastya never knew why, perhaps because to have a wife meant that one was fucking, which was a dirty thing. She's in England. She's English, anyway, but she's gone there for a cancer operation.
She has cancer of the breast. He had an almost uncontrollable impulse to spread out his fingers to show the size of the tumour and then the size of the breast, but he decided to save that for later.
He went on like this, careless with details. His parents were in Antarctica, members of the first Indian expedition. Yes, even his mother, she had a Ph. D in Oceanography from the Sorbonne. After a while the personal questions stopped. 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 , 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. 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. 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.In this modern materialistic civilization, politics, economy and administration have become parts of the social system life. When it rains the cattle camp in the corridors of the Collectorate. OK, agreed Agastya, and began eating rapidly.
Macaulay's ,lrnperisl-rable Empire' and.. Upamanyu Chatterjee depicts a vivid picture of trivial life.
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