Michael Dirda

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, April 23, 2006

ENGLISH, AUGUST

An Indian Story

By Upamanyu Chatterjee

New York Review. 326 pp. Paperback, $14.95

There are two favorite themes in comic fiction, each the obverse of the other: The good- hearted innocent or Noble Savage who unexpectedly finds himself in the dazzling big city and the urban sophisticate somehow trapped among provincial hicks. On the one hand, Candide , on the other, Cold Comfort Farm . In both cases, the humor arises from incongruity and dislocation, as if a Martian were observing the strange ways of humans. Besides making us laugh (no small thing in itself), such novels compel us to think twice about our own social preconceptions and pretensions.

Certainly, this is true of English, August , Upamanyu Chatterjee's affectionate yet unsparing slacker view of modern India. When the pot-smoking, New Delhi-bred, directionless 24-year-old Agastya Sen joins the elite Indian Administrative Service he is posted to Madna, "the hottest place in India." While being driven through the town, Agastya looks out at his new home with the eyes of a blasé, slightly stoned Gen-Xer:

"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? wondered Agastya. No, Gandhi cap and Nehru jacket. Or Gandhi jacket and Nehru cap? And Patel vest? And Mountbatten lungi and Rajaji shawl and Tagore dhoti?), some had towels over their heads."

To Agastya -- known to his friends as August, or sometimes English -- he has been sentenced to the back of beyond. Seemingly overwhelmed by the heat, this slow-moving novel goes on to describe Madna's petty officials, the pretensions and daydreams of its citizens, endless governmental meetings, hilarious dinner parties, much drunkenness and boredom and bureaucracy. To amuse himself when he meets the locals, Agastya makes up stories about his past: He confides to the District Inspector of Land Records that his (nonexistent) wife is a Norwegian Muslim and that 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." To the superintendent of police he casually lets slip that last summer he had climbed Mount Everest.

The food everywhere seems inedible. At one meeting at Gandhi Hall he is handed a plate. "On it were laddus, samosas and green chutney. He could almost hear the chutney say, Hi, my name is cholera, what's yours?" Refusing the food, he explains to the waiter, " 'I can't eat anything today. My mother died today.' The man looked puzzled . . . . 'I mean, this is the anniversary of my mother's death, and I fast.' For a moment he contemplated adding, 'In penance, because I killed her.' "

In Madna everything is broken or stolen, mosquitoes swarm over one's body, people defecate in the streets. As the days pass, Agastya drifts, dodging his social obligations as he does his office duties. Self-pitying and not especially likable, he nonetheless reveals a sharp eye and ready wit. He neatly sums up his father, a distinguished government minister: "Life for him was a serious, rather noble business, a blend of Marcus Aurelius and the Reader's Digest ." When asked about his major in college, Agastya truthfully answers, " 'English, sir,' . . . and wished that it had been something more respectable, Physics or Economics or Mathematics or Law, a subject that at least sounded as though one had to study for its exams." The notoriously sexy walls of Indian temples, he notes disingenuously, "were covered with intricately carved figures of different sizes, all of whom seemed to be having a good time."

Most novels progress, but this one simply chronicles an ongoing anomie and spiritual restlessness. When an elderly acquaintance urges marriage to his granddaughter, Agastya quickly refuses. "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 evening, each still a cocoon, but perhaps it would be unwise to be otherwise."

Born in 1959, Upamanyu Chatterjee himself served in the Indian Administrative Service, and clearly knows both its ways and the disconnect felt between young Indians and their past. Agastya and his city friends are drawn to, yet troubled by, the growing dominion of Western culture; they treat their religious and cultural traditions with nonchalance or disdain; sometimes they praise the British Raj, and sometimes they denounce it. When first published in 1988, English, August became a bestseller and has since been likened to John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces and J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye . With some justice too, though it isn't quite as funny or brilliantly written as either.

Chatterjee, though, excels in his descriptions of Indian life. These aren't always comic. There's a scene in which mothers tie ropes to their small children and lower them into nearly dried-out wells so that they can bring up buckets of muddy water. One official's elegant wife casually blames the servant when her spoiled child viciously takes a bite out of the poor man. Rural "tribals" revenge themselves on an adulterer by chopping off his arms. While the laid-back Agastya may feel out of place in Madna, the American reader soon feels grateful for the chance to visit a world by turns so familiar and exotic (and thankful for the glossary of Indian words at the back of the book). For this we must honor New York Review Books, which specializes in reprinting well-chosen fiction and nonfiction from around the world.

Unlike many of the other Indian writers we read these days -- Salman Rushdie, Bharati Mukherjee, Rohinton Mistry, Shashi Tharoor -- Upamanyu Chatterjee has remained in India, where he, surprisingly, still works as a civil servant and writes novels on the side, most recently The Mammaries of the Welfare State and Weight Loss . He's a writer worth discovering, and English, August is the place to start. ยท

Michael Dirda is a critic for Book World. His e-mail address is mdirda@gmail.com, and his online discussion of books takes place each Wednesday at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.


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