Upamanyu Chatterjee‘s satirical and comical novel English, August is coming to America 18 years after it was originally published in India. It is the story of a young man named Agastya Sen who comes to the fictional rural town of Madna on a government job in which he hasn’t the slightest interest. Agastya, teased by friends as “August” for his western habits, gets his first experience of the dustiness, the mosquitoes, the procrastination and the bureaucratic humbug that characterized India during her long years of Russian-inspired socialist programs and Five Year Plans. In this new milieu, Agastya philosophizes – with the aid of marijuana, beer and sex – in a funny story which Amit Chaudhari called “the Indianest novel in English that I know of”. Celebrating the novel’s appearance in the US, Akash Kapur writes in the New York Times:
Chatterjee’s prose is cynical, witty and frequently bawdy; it brilliantly captures a generation and a nation struggling to reorient themselves in the early days of what we now call globalization. “They’re turning modern without warning, these bastards,” a friend of Agastya’s exclaims while struggling to open a cylinder of cooking gas that has a new kind of seal. One character strolls around with a Walkman, and likes to call rupees “bucks” and himself Mandy. “He’s the sort who’d love to get AIDS just because it’s raging in America,” is another character’s withering verdict.
There’s something quaint about such descriptions, reminders of a time when a Walkman was still a totem of modernity and AIDS was an American problem (rather than, say, a rural Indian one). “English, August” is filled with cultural references — Maruti cars, Nirodh condoms, Campa Colas — that are from another era, as are many of India’s insecurities and uncertainties about the West. Today’s India is very different from the nation Chatterjee captures here: more modern, more globalized, more self-confident. Yet “English, August” has worn remarkably well. Agastya’s story is convincing, entertaining, moving — and timeless. It merits an accolade that’s far harder to earn than “authentic.” It’s a classic.
Aside: I liked that bit about the Walkman and Campa-Cola. I recall that my parents purchased my first Walkman (Philips, not Sony, and with a cassette, not a CD) for me sometime in the early 1990s, and I was too embarrassed to walk around with it in public for fear of appearing weird. It boggles the mind when I compare the India of less than twenty years ago with the country she is today. It is almost impossible to believe that there were no cars on the road other than Premier Padminis, Ambassadors, and the tiny Maruti 800s. The mere spotting of a very rare imported Honda Accord on the road would earn bragging rights among friends.