Wednesday, July 9, 2008

English August: An Indian Story

English August: An Indian Story
Author: Upamanyu Chatterjee
Published: 1988
Genre: Novel / Fiction / Literature
Publisher: Faber & Faber
Pages: 288

Having parents who work in the State Forest Services is forever a pleasure. And I have long entertained the desire to chronicle my days in the virgin forests of Arunachal Pradesh. And now, I have a very worthy prequel in Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English, August: An Indian Story (1988). And ‘chronicle’ is the word. For, whatever doubt I had reading the book that such intricate detail can only stem from personal observation, has been substantiated by the fact that it actually is. Upamanyu Chatterjee, the author, is in the I.A.S and this explains why, the book is for its author what David Copperfield was for Charles Dickens: fictionalized autobiography.

And a veritable David Copperfield it is at certain instances, for instance, it’s ‘Bengali-ness’: both the author and his protagonist Agastya Sen (August / Ogu) are Bengali by birth. And then, both novels deal with a lot of self-introspection by the protagonist. And finally, both Chatterjee’s and Dickens’ humour add a lot of life to the novel. Only, where Dickens is not being frivolous about disease and dirt, Chatterjee, through Agastya, is. Take the passage where Agastya is looking at the food offered to him at the Integration Meeting, where it seems to him that the green chutney seems to tell him, ‘Hi, my name is Cholera, what’s yours?’.

But then this is a post-colonial modernist novel. And the similarities with David Copperfield end there. And where Dickens’ novel gained from the intimacy bestowed by a first-person narrative, Chatterjee shies away from doing so. And gains from it too. For where Dickens’ humanism made him find hope in hatred, Chatterjee refuses to find reason in cacophony or method in madness. This is Madna, not Victorian England. And just as R.K. Narayan’s Malgudi or Hardy’s Wessex becomes a microcosm for the world, Madna with its naked reality of poverty and dirt and squalor becomes Agastya’s. It is here that the play unfolds (for this is just an episode, not a plot with beginning, middle and end and if anything, the events depicted in Agastya’s life have no causal connection). Madna serves as the backdrop to the satire just as a decadent London does to David Copperfield: ‘Ah. India lives in its villages, a terrible cliché that, but really very true, like all clichés’.

Madna is a distant district town where young I.A.S officer Agastya Sen must train under the scowling District Collector, Srivastav and his entire ilk. It is at Madna that city-bred son of Bengal Governor, Madhusudan Sen, and Goan mother Agastya must play out his cards so that the precious few whom he befriends ask him over for meals and drinks yet allow him to lie naked on his bed, smoke marijuana and feel stoned. Madna is indeed the prototype of the many district towns dotting post-British India. Most of the characters Agastya meets are straight out of popular culture; strain your neck and you will catch Vasant lurking somewhere, or the SP or Pultukaku or Dhrubo. And it is because Agastya has never lived in the hinterland that the exposure comes as a cultural shock, one which he often considers giving up. Even at the end of the novel, he writes to his friend Dhrubo, ‘I've become your American, taking a year off after college to discover himself’, as he leaves for Calcutta.

The poverty and squalor that he sees at Madna and the bureaucratization and politicization make the dough for deep satire. And satirical the book definitely is. But on the whole, which is why David Copperfield figures yet again, the novel is a bildungsroman, a book that charts the development and growth of its protagonist. For, otherwise, this could well be a travelogue gone awry with just the wrong descriptions to keep the tourist away. Yes, what salvages the book from being either a travelogue, or a memoir (and I suspect it definitely is one), is the fact that it marries the two. This is a book of self-discovery; of finding one’s calling; of fidgeting in the gray area of not willing to leave behind a cushy student’s life and yet not being ready to give up a good job for it. The self-introspection that Agastya indulges in make the novel more philosophical in tone: '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'.

What strikes you after reading English, August: An Indian Story is its Indian-ness. The India in the novel is for the reader to discover. It is so familiar that it slips your notice. And at the core of the novel lies it’s unhurried pace, Chatterjee’s word-smithy and wry humour to add to the already delicious brew. Which is to say, this is classic literature, which heaves, manifests and lasts. And Upamanyu Chatterjee is indeed in the big league of Indians writing in English, a worthy contemporary of Raja Rao, R.K. Narayan, Vikram Seth and Anita Desai.

I haven’t yet forgiven myself for not reading it earlier. Go grab it folks. It is a book for keeps.

No comments: