NEW DELHI -- Upamanyu Chatterjee, acclaimed novelist and listless civil servant, spends his working days in a sickly yellow room with pockmarked concrete walls, bamboo matting and a merciful cooling fan lodged in a far window.
But at the moment, he is absent from his office. Chatterjee, like any Indian bureaucrat of his rank and slothful ingenuity, can avoid purposeful work for weeks on end. One method is simply to disappear for long stretches of the heat-soaked day, safe in the assumption that no one else in the government will notice.
The fat woman who shares Chatterjee's office, the one-armed peon who enters to dump string-wrapped files into his "in" box, the limping maintenance worker who hauls a dripping hose to fill the cooling fan with water -- none can say where Chatterjee has disappeared to or when he may return. "After some time," they say.
Thirty minutes pass in silence. Chatterjee's telephone rings. No one answers, and the ringing ceases. It rings again. Still no one moves. And again. The fifth time, the fat woman, a fellow civil servant, picks it up and shrieks. "No, I am not Mr. Chatterjee, nor am I his PA!" (PA means secretary.) "Kindly instruct Mr. Chatterjee to leave his PA in his room whenever he leaves his room, in a very responsible manner! Do you understand that?!!" She slams down the phone.
It is an hour before Chatterjee, a slim 30-year-old man with hooded eyes and a remote air, slinks into the office and settles into the thronelike chair behind his desk. He offers coffee to the fat woman, but she politely refuses. Chatterjee scribbles a note and hands it unobtrusively to his visitor. "She's a nut," it reads.
Upamanyu Chatterjee is in some ways the Jay McInerney of India -- a precocious, sarcastic writer catapulted to renown by a first novel that captures in the voice of its narrator the alienated bemusement of a young generation of educated, urban Indians.
Like McInerney's "Bright Lights, Big City," which satirized the precious pretensions of the New Yorker magazine, Chatterjee's "English, August" bulldozed through a sacred temple of India's intellectual elite -- the Indian civil service, last refuge of the Brahmans, babus and glorified clerks who have governed the subcontinent since the days of the British Empire, and still the country's most important and influential public institution.
An obvious difference is that while McInerney kissed and told after he left the New Yorker, where his name presumably is now mud, Chatterjee still works in the belly of the institution he satirized, currently as the Undersecretary for Establishment and General Administration in the Department of Culture in the Ministry of Human Resources of the Government of India.
It is difficult to explain why his career as an elite civil servant has not been tarnished by a novel that describes many of his colleagues as overweight, lazy, confused and arbitrary drones who show up for work at 11, take lunch at noon, sleep until 4, then return to the office to sign a few papers and go home to drink, eat and play cards.
But not only has Chatterjee escaped reprimand for his unflattering portrait of India's civil service, he has received a sort of promotion. About a year after the book was published in 1988, he was assigned to the Department of Culture, where the bureaucratic powers figured a budding novelist should be posted -- even if Chatterjee's duties irrelevantly involve supervising the vacation leaves and car loans and housing allowances of other bureaucrats in his department.
"Some have read it, but not a lot," he says of his superiors' benign reaction to his novel. "There hasn't yet been a totally unfavorable review, but there have been some who felt the book was not fair in its entirety. Some others felt it was far too filthy, far too bawdy. But on the whole, the reactions have been favorable."
The reason lies partly in the elliptical and stunningly tolerant culture of India -- Chatterjee calls it "the Hindu tradition" -- wherein dissent is not usually quashed or rejected, but rather absorbed, or ignored, or talked about until it becomes part of an ever-broadening consensus.
So it is that "English, August," far from generating a storm of controversy within the Indian bureaucracy it describes, has been embraced as one of the bureaucracy's achievements. And Chatterjee, instead of assuming the angry stance of a writer exiled from the state, has settled rather nicely into his public career, wandering the hallways of his vast ministry by day, as he puts it, "finding out how many peons there are in the department and what they do," while scribbling a sarcastic sequel to his novel in his off hours
He has decided, he says, to remain in the civil service for good. He expects to be posted to Bombay next year, when he hopes his second novel will be published. Here again is the literary condition in India: There is no screenplay deal in the offing, despite the enthusiastic reviews of his novel in India's English-language press and in Britain. There can be no tenure track teaching creative writing to underclassmen; the system doesn't work that way.
The uncomfortable truth, which Chatterjee appears to accept, is that an educated Brahman who has been fortunate enough to land at the top of the Indian social and governmental hierarchy simply doesn't leave. Writing novels may be a pastime, but the civil service is a lifetime.
Chatterjee has made the calculations already -- next year he will be transferred to the finance ministry, or the income tax department, or some other obscure corner of the Indian government's sprawling infrastructure. The civil service will provide him with a two- or three-bedroom apartment in Bombay's poshest waterfront neighborhood for just $18 a month in rent, and probably a car and driver too. Then there is the lifetime job guarantee, and the salary, and the immeasurable prestige of belonging to the civil service ...
"You come to that invisible quality. Maybe prestige is the wrong word, maybe it's a class-oriented word. But I can't think of a better one. It does make a difference if you tell people, even now, in a big city, if you tell them that you are in the service. It's difficult to pinpoint, but it's there.
"I would like to write all the time, but I've found out that I can't. Economically, because -- maybe the next book will get a bigger advance, but for this I didn't get much. And personally, because I can't write so much every day." He once considered abandoning the civil service, but now "there's no question of copping out.
"I feel completely at home in the absurdities of India, " he says. "I like it here. ... it's a soft life."
Intellectual in an Outpost
"English, August" tells the semiautobiographical story of Agastya Sen, a talented if unenthusiastic university student who, like an estimated 100,000 college graduates in India each year, takes the national civil service examination in the hope of securing one of 150 annual openings in the Indian Administrative Service, or IAS, successor to the vast public bureaucracy established by the British more than a century ago. Sen, who has spent all of his life in the partially Westernized, urban isolation of Calcutta and Delhi, wins one of the coveted spots and finds himself on a slow train to Madna, a tiny outpost in the backward countryside, where he is to be trained in the art of Indian public service.
In Madna he finds "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 ... 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."
He unpacks his bags in a one-room government guest house infested by mosquitoes and a noisy frog, attended by a poisonous cook and engulfed by airborne diseases. For the next nine months, Sen smokes a great deal of marijuana, masturbates joylessly and frequently, mooches liquor from a local political cartoonist, lies shamelessly about his past and manages to avoid learning anything useful about the practices of government and economic development in India, other than that the country appears ungovernable and that the bureaucracy seems largely purposeless.
The novel is not exactly fast-paced, but its lethargy mirrors the rhythms of rural India, and Chatterjee's narrative voice -- brittle, scathing, juvenile, hilarious -- cuts through the fog around him like a cold wind.
"He seemed to interrupt the second of the six (or so) tea breaks of the day. Life was a leisurely affair in Madna. Various aging fat men in the room, the denizens of the collectorate, shuffled at seeing him and sat down demurely. ... Agastya felt happy to see such placid faces. He sat beside the supply officer, who smelt like a scented eraser out of a geometry box."
Chatterjee says most of the letters he gets these days are from fellow members of the service who write in amiable tones that he has captured exactly their own experiences of serving in the Indian nether regions, where they felt utterly at sea in the great mass of poverty, illiteracy, filth and heat, which it was their job to manage and improve upon.
What does it say about India that a story of drift, purposelessness, alienation and lethargy in the omnipresent government is welcomed as a portrait of unchangeable truth?
Chatterjee himself isn't sure. He does not work for the government because he thinks he can change India or make it a better place, he says. He joined the civil service because everybody else he knew wanted to, because at Delhi University, "It's really like breathing: You take the exam."
Like many English-speaking Indian intellectuals, and like Sen in his novel, Chatterjee lives somewhat uncomfortably between the inexorable pull of India and the enticements of the West. Chatterjee bristles when he talks about expatriate Indian writers whose work he partially admires -- Salman Rushdie, V.S. Naipaul -- because he thinks they don't belong to India at all; the India that they write about is an India of memory, not of experience.
Yet Chatterjee, who has never left his native country, and who works near the heart of Indian society, feels like an outsider himself. The countryside where most Indians live remains alien -- it's a place, as Sen observes in the novel, "where floods and caste wars occurred, where entire families were murdered, where some prime minister took his helicopter just after a calamity, or just before the elections ... a dot in this hinterland."
These days Chatterjee is serious about a French woman whom he met in Delhi, and he is thinking about marrying her. This summer, he will travel to Britain to attend a writers seminar at Cambridge University. He wonders what he will think of Europe when he finally sees it.
"I've never felt this urge to actually settle abroad or go abroad," he says. "I was told by this chap I know who's been to Yale -- he said it's a helluva shock if you come back. Then it's even madder."
Laughing Off the Absurdities
Chatterjee is back where he feels more or less at home: at his desk in the sickly yellow room. A problem has come before him, one of the half-scams of ordinary bureaucratic life, and Chatterjee is deeply amused. His tight and somewhat eerie smile seems to be suppressing boisterous laughter.
An overweight civil servant with oiled hair and a stunning repertoire of meaningless facts about world geography has come to Chatterjee's office seeking money. Each year, it seems, the Undersecretary for Establishment and General Administration of the Department of Culture in the Ministry of Human Resources of the Government of India -- for the time being, that's Chatterjee -- is granted 150,000 rupees ($8,500) to dole out to fellow civil servants for automobile loans. This year, in one of the perquisites of the job, Chatterjee has reserved 52,000 rupees for himself to buy a new car. Three other bureaucrats, including the geography expert before him, have submitted applications for the rest.
"He has come here to lobby," Chatterjee explains giddily, as if the supplicant were not even in the room. "He thinks he should get the full amount."
The man hunches in his chair, evidently offended, but not so much so that he will let pass this opportunity to lobby. "It is not a question of lobbying. I know my position," he tells Chatterjee. His rival applicant, the man goes on, "will be going in for a car of maybe 20,000 or 30,000 rupees. My car is going to cost me 110,000 rupees. I need the full amount."
Chatterjee leans back, still suppressing laughter. They pay him well to gather material for his novels. He plays the scene to the end. He hems, he haws, he waffles. The other applicants will be offended if he gives the full amount to one person. What can he do?
The man shifts uncomfortably, tries another approach, retreats, then finally asks Chatterjee to write an innocuous letter to his superior recording their conversation. Chatterjee agrees, then schedules another meeting. The drama will go on for months, slowly, purposelessly, to the music of whirring office fans.
"Whether to give it to him or divide it among the three is something I could decide on my own, but I won't," Chatterjee explains later. "It's bound to create a lot of unpleasantness if I make the decision. So I will mark it up to the deputy secretary and let him decide. I think he will mark it up to the joint secretary. ... There's no end to it."
And where is the satisfaction, as opposed to the amusement, in all of this? Chatterjee talks about the variety of his work, the shifting from topic to topic and from post to post, the perks, the security. Sen, the protagonist of "English, August," finds the same regimen disgusting, even horrifying. But Chatterjee, well, he has grown into the job. He wrote his novel when the service was new and strange. Now he has been at least partially absorbed by it.
"Sen's viewpoint has really wrongly been taken as mine. It's really the viewpoint of the outsider."
An experienced civil servant wrote Chatterjee recently and told him that he could only have written "English, August" when he did, because if he had waited another three years -- say, until 1991 -- he would have become just like the overweight men who sit around Madna playing cards, drinking whiskey, swatting mosquitoes and managing the affairs of India without much effectiveness.
Chatterjee smiles as he describes the letter. "It's not a very nice thing to say about me," he says. "But I thought he was making a very valid point."