Book Reviews

Book Review: English August

English, August: An Indian StoryEnglish, August: An Indian Story by Upamanyu Chatterjee

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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“The mind is restless, Krishna, impetuous, self-willed, hard to train: to master the mind seems as difficult as to master the mighty winds.”

“The mind is indeed restless, Arjuna: it is indeed hard to train. But by constant practice & freedom from passions the mind in truth can be trained.”

As far as I remember, the first time I heard about English August was in some article about the birth of the indie-cinema in India. 4-5 years back I read a book titled Keep off the Grass by Karan Bajaj. The author talked about Agastya fondly quite a few times in a way which made me want to read the book. And after reading Weight Loss by the same author I grew more curious.

English August tells the story of 24 year old Agastya Sen, August to his friends; who belongs to an affluent family living in urban India who passes the IAS examination is posted to a remote town called Madna for his 1 year traning period.

The novel starts with Agastya sharing a joint with Dhrubo while driving around in Delhi, when Dhrubo predicts he’s going to be hazaar fucked in Madna. From there the story moves to the town of Madna,a town full of paradoxes like every Indian town, a town where Agastya neither speaks nor understands  the main language, a place where he’s an outsider.

Upamanyu Chatterjee brilliantly writes about the feeling when you go to sleep knowing that you have nothing to look forward to apart from going to sleep the next night at the same time & on & on. What you do in between doesn’t matter much, whether it’s getting stoned while listening to Jazz, jerking off, going running or reading Bhagavad Gita or Marcus Aurelius.

Despite the fact that it is a story about the indifference to the mundanity of a life yet it is brilliantly funny. One particular incident which I found hilarious was the time where Agastya & Bhatia are drinking whiskey & Bhatia stops & simply stares at the glass.

“Do you feel like a writer of ghazals over his empty glass?”, Agastya asks him. Bhatia replies “I think there is something at the bottom of the glass. I think it is rat shit.”

Another incident which had me in splits after reading was Agastya’s introduction with his future colleagues.

‘How old are you, sir?’

‘Twenty-eight.’Agastya was twenty-four, but he was in a lying mood. He also disliked their faces.

‘Are you married, sir?’ Again that demand that he classify himself. Ahmed leaned forward for each question, neck tensed and head angled with politeness.

‘Yes.’ He wondered for a second whether he should add ‘twice’.

‘And your Mrs, sir?’ Agarwal’s voice dropped at ‘Mrs’; in all those months all references to wives were in hushed, almost embarrassed, tones. Agastya never knew why, perhaps because to have a wife meant that one was fucking, which was a dirty thing.

‘She’s in England. She’s English, anyway, but she’s gone there for a cancer operation. She has cancer of the breast.’ He had an almost uncontrollable impulse to spread out his fingers to show the size of the tumour and then the size of the breast, but he decided to save that for later. Later in his training he told the District Inspector of Land Records that his wife was a Norwegian Muslim.

In the book Agastya remembers an essay which he had written on the subject of ‘My ambition in life’ while he was in school,

“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 pass, 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 story gradually moves forward with the character reluctantly interested in the concepts of renunciation, in Hinduism  in Bhagavad Gita & Marcus Aurelius. It becomes a tale of Agastya’s ‘secret life’, as he calls it, which comprises of contemplating whether or not to smoke a joint in the morning, then whether to smoke one more; of impulsive decisions to stop masturbating, then mechanically masturbating anyway, of walking around the town in the evenings, hoping that you don’t run into somebody so that it would save him the effort of making small talk, but also visiting people, to squeeze dinner invitations from them because that’s the only hope of surviving; ; of insomnia, & consequently staring at the ceiling, exercising at 2 in the morning.

The story is not one about  the protagonist realizing his true calling or a coming of age story of a character finally understanding his purpose in life. Instead it’s the opposite. It’s a story of coming to terms with the lack of a purpose. The lines that could even come close to summing up the book are

I don’t want challenges or responsibility or anything, all I want is to be happy.I don’t want the heaven, or any of the other ephemerals, the power or the glory, I just want this, this moment, this sunlight, the car in the garage, that Music System in my room, these gross material things, I could make these last forever.

“I want to sit in the mild sun& try & escape the iniquity of the restlessness of the mind. Doesn’t anyone understand the absence of ambition, or the simplicity of it?”

All the characters in the story are intelligently created. And I felt that every character was necessary.

For the first few pages I was a little surprised because this happened to be one those rare books where my thoughts happened to be identical at times to that of the author. But I didn’t feel any camaraderie with the author. Instead, my thoughts were again similar to the ones Agastya has when he finds that Bhatia has somewhat similar ways of tackling with boredom in Madna. Bhatia shattered the illusion of any misconceptions of grandeur I had after my many pointless musings.

Bhatia, the college acquaintance is brilliantly used to show Agastya’s analysis of his own secret life. He realizes how ridiculous his ‘secret life’ is. He also understands that the major consolation of the secret life was the possiblity that it was a profound experience; something rare. His last consoling illusions had been that his sense of loneliness was too precious to be shared.But Agastya also realizes that there is no point in sharing any personal thoughts among misfits for the simple reason that- both of them are islands in his own universe, immense only to himself.

Sathe, who’s introduced as the village clown, seems to laugh at everything wholeheartedly surprises as he turns out to be a cartoonist who tries to make political commentary using Bhagavad Gita. After reading some of his dialogues are profoundly funny. Sample the following

“One day, when you turn sensible you’ll stop. You’ll learn the complete unnecessariness of any excess physical exertion. You do it to feel sexy, but sexiness is in the mind. And as an Indian you should live the life of contemplation. Does Kamasutra recommend push-ups ?”

Putlukaku’s character is brilliant. Most of his sarcastic comments on Agastya’s lifestyle are accurate to the last bit. He rightly notes that Agastya’s first instinct to everything around him is to relate it to something western, to something foreign. This statement was true for a part of the generation back then & & is still true 25 years after the book was first published.

But my favorite secondary character remains Shankar, who happens to be Agastya’s neighbour. The singer who sings amazing thumris & smells of whiskey all day long. There’s one dialogue that I will not forget,

“We are men without ambition, and all we want is to be left alone, in peace so that we can try and be happy. So few people will understand this simplicity.”

With great difficulty I am refraining myself from posting the letters from Agastya’s father & especially the one from Renu.

The book has some brilliant lines from the Bhagavad Gita & Marcus Aurelius.

“In the dark night of my soul I feel desolation. In my self-pity I see not the way of righteousness.”

“But many branched & endless are the thoughts of the man who lacks determination.”

The book ends with a beautiful quote by Marcus Aurelius

“Today I got myself out of all my perplexities; or rather, I have got the perplexities out of myself-for they were not without, but within; they lay in my own outlook.”

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