The first time I heard about English, August was a trailer for its movie adaptation (starring Rahul Bose) on some TV channel, like a decade ago. I could not catch the movie, but I loved the few fragments of utter bizarreness that I witnessed. In the years since then, I had kept reminding myself to get hold of this 1988 book by Upamanyu Chatterjee and this year I finally did.
This is a novel about an Indian Administrative Service (IAS) trainee on his one year training stint in a small town trying to find himself while understanding the people and world around him. The protagonist Agasthya (nicknamed August) is posted to Madna, a fictional town set in the hinterlands of Madhya Pradesh or Orissa (my guess). Having studied in elite schools in India and a prestigious UK university, it is not clear why he had to take the IAS route. He is a thinker, lies like there is no tomorrow to see how it affects his supplicants and his superiors, but he is not sure what he must do in life. Life in Delhi or Calcutta is too set for his taste and as he lives through his days in Madna, he does not find the government service appealing either. Through his eyes the reader sees the world of small town India, the ridiculous (yet strangely functioning) government machinery and their officials, minions and families.
Having spent many summers in the 80s and 90s (before cable and internet) with a government official parent posted in towns who no one has heard of, I loved this novel and the rich, detailed picture it offers of its world. Through the eyes of August, we see how much of this India is totally bonkers and yet it strangely plods on, like it has for centuries. The characters, sights, smells, texture, places and people of Madna rival that of RK Narayan’s Malgudi and will be sure to stay with the reader for life. From first hand experience, I can say that Chatterjee’s depiction of the entire government-police-politician hierarchy (from Collector down to the peons) is 100% accurate and so are all the nonsensical settings and characters. Yes, the badly made Gandhi statues, the cows that flick dung at you with their tail, the Rest House cook who cooks like shit, the glassy eyed people sitting on haunches outside government offices for some justice and all the thousands more of these in the novel are all real. To someone who has lived only in Indian cities or an outsider, the world of this novel might seem totally absurd, but believe me this is how it is (or maybe was) in small town India. The writing is brilliant and through August’s OxBridge view of Madna the novel generates enormous satire. English, August is a superbly entertaining view of the comical existence of India and it is a story that can only be Indian. Highly recommended.
Gandhi Hall stood beside the city police station, a three-storeyed building. For a moment he thought that it had been bombed, something out of a TV news clip on Beirut, broken window panes, old walls, an uncertain air, a kind of wonder at not having collapsed yet. A red banner over the door, and outside, a statue of a short fat bespectacled man with a rod coming out of his arse. He asked in wonder, ‘Is that a statue of Gandhi?’ Srivastav laughed shrilly. ‘Yes. Who did you think?’ ‘Phew. What’s the rod, sir?’ Srivastav laughed even more. ‘That’s to prop up the statue. It fell off a few weeks after it was installed. Madna will have many more surprises, Sen.’
In his essay Agastya had said that his real ambition was to be a domesticated male stray dog because they lived the best life. They were assured of food, and because they were stray they didn’t have to guard a house or beg or shake paws or fetch trifles or be clean or anything similarly meaningless to earn their food. They were servile and sycophantic when hungry; once fed, and before sleep, they wagged their tails perfunctorily whenever their hosts passed, as an investment for future meals. A stray dog was free; he slept a lot, barked unexpectedly and only when he wanted to, and got a lot of sex.
The contract was implicit but clear. The Collectors and their wives believed vehemently in the indignity of labour (so did most of Madna believe that one’s social standing was in inverse proportion to the amount of one’s own work that one did oneself), and it is easier to believe these things when one’s domestic servants are being paid by the Government. The other party to the contract, the peons, believed in the indignity of labour too, it is part of the Indian story. But they also knew that the goodwill and help of superiors are much more important than beliefs.
Bhatia picked up the book like an illiterate, or like a pragmatic government servant who disliked any printed word that did not further his career in any form; just because his hands were fidgety and the book was close by. The book could just as well have been a cricket ball, or Rubik’s Cube.
The lights had dimmed, and the first song had begun, a Hindi film disco song. The crooner seemed lost in his gyrations and leers, but sang well. Agastya noticed then that the men and women were sitting separately, separated by a central aisle and a few vacant chairs. Later Sathe tried to explain, ‘That’s been the tradition in Madna. In other small towns too. The men sit apart from the women and children. I really don’t know why. Maybe because no one wants to see a man and a woman enjoying anything together.’ ‘But why?’ Agastya said. ‘They aren’t fucking in public. This happens even at movies?’ ‘No, not at movies, not anywhere where they have to buy tickets.’
But something was odd, and he realized in a moment that it was the muteness of the village, there seemed to be no laughter and no conversation. The village did have children, but they were all busy. Women were tying them to ropes and letting them into the well. After a while the ropes were bringing up buckets. He went closer. The buckets were half-full of some thin mud. The only sounds were the echoing clang of the buckets against the walls of the well, and the tired snivelling of a few children on the side. He looked at them. Gashed elbows and knees from the well walls, one child had a wound like a flower on his forehead. The woman who had come to the office was looking at him in a kind of triumph. He looked into the well. He couldn’t see any water, but the children were blurred wraiths forty feet below, scouring the mud of the well floor for water, like sinners serving some mythic punishment.