English, August: An Indian Story

Overview

Agastya Sen, known to friends by the English name August, is a child of the Indian elite. His friends go to Yale and Harvard. August himself has just landed a prize government job. The job takes him to Madna, “the hottest town in India,” deep in the sticks. There he finds himself surrounded by incompetents and cranks, time wasters, bureaucrats, and crazies. What to do? Get stoned, shirk work, collapse in the heat, stare at the ceiling. Dealing with the locals turns out to be a lot easier for August than living ...

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Overview

Agastya Sen, known to friends by the English name August, is a child of the Indian elite. His friends go to Yale and Harvard. August himself has just landed a prize government job. The job takes him to Madna, “the hottest town in India,” deep in the sticks. There he finds himself surrounded by incompetents and cranks, time wasters, bureaucrats, and crazies. What to do? Get stoned, shirk work, collapse in the heat, stare at the ceiling. Dealing with the locals turns out to be a lot easier for August than living with himself. English, August is a comic masterpiece from contemporary India. Like A Confederacy of Dunces and The Catcher in the Rye, it is both an inspired and hilarious satire and a timeless story of self-discovery.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
An “affectionate yet unsparing slacker view of modern IndiaÉlikened to John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces and J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye Unlike many of the other Indian writers we read these days, Chatterjee has remained in India...He's a writer worth discovering, and English, August is the place to start.”–Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

“This is a very funny novel, but a humane one as well.”–Katherine Powers, The Boston Globe

“Chatterjee offers…a funny, intimate portrait of one person puzzling over his place in the world…”–Julia Hanna, The Boston Phoenix

A “witty and lyrical first novel…it is hard to believe that it has taken this book so long to reach American readers, but once they finish it, they will agree it was well worth the wait. A contribution not just to Indian literature but to world literature; highly recommended.”–Library Journal
• Stared Review

English, August is one of the most important novels in Indian writing in English, but not for the usual reasons. Indeed, it’s at war with ‘importance,’ and is one of the few Indian English novels in the last two decades genuinely, and wonderfully, impelled by irreverence and aimlessness. It’s this acutely intelligent conflation of self-discovery with the puncturing of solemnity that makes this book not only a significant work, but a much-loved one.” –Amit Chaudhuri

“A slacker seeks career success and sexual fulfillment in Chatterjee's 1988 first novel, since proclaimed a contemporary Indian classic…This beautifully written book strikes a nifty balance among satiric comedy, pointed social commentary and penetrating characterization. Widely considered India's Catcher in the Rye, it also echoes both R.K. Narayan's Malgudi novels and J.P. Donleavy's classic portrayal of rampant, unrepentant maleness, The Ginger Man…Excellent stuff. Let's have Chatterjee's other novels, please.” –Kirkus Reviews

“The ‘Indianest’ novel in English that I know of. Utterly uncompromised, wildly funny, and a revelation of everyday life in modern India.” — Suketu Mehta

“…Chatterjee, himself an IAS officer, creates a comic, entertaining portrayal of an administrator's life in the sticks.” –Publishers Weekly

“…a remarkably mature first novel” –The Times Literary Supplement

"There's a popular conception that Indian fiction in English hit the road to big time with Upamanyu Chatterjee's English, August in 1988. The irreverent language, the wry humour and the immediately identifiable situations struck a chord with a generation of Indians which was looking for its own voice and found it in Agastya Sen." – The Sunday Express

“[an] elegant and gently mischievous satire” –The London Observer

“By the highest serio-comic standards, this novel marks the debut of an extraordinarily promising talent.” —The Observer

“Beautifully written…English, August is a marvelously intelligent and entertaining novel, and especially for anyone curious about modern India.” –Punch

“A jazzy, baggy, hyperbolic, comic and crazy clamour of voices which…brings a breath of fresh talent to Indian fiction.” –Glasgow Herald

“…when New York Review Books Classics publishes Upamanyu Chatterjee’s 1988 debut novel, English, August, for the first time in the U.S., Americans will finally have the chance to be in on what readers in England and India have known for years: that the great outpouring of Indian lit over the past decade and a half owes as much to this irreverent, acid-witted book as it does to Salman Rushdie’s magnum opus, Midnight’s Children…A best-seller in India (and later a hit film), English, August struck a chord with a generation of young writers wrestling with the messy sprawl of modern South Asia…English, August is more than a satire. It’s also a novel with resonating concerns about the meaning of maturity in the modern era. …American readers should identify with the brainy, sarcastic and slightly confused protagonist of English, August as he struggles to find a purpose in a rapidly changing world.”–Time Out New York

Akash Kapur
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.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Chatterjee's slacker bildungsroman, first published in India in 1988 and set during that decade, tells of a privileged young man's year of living languorously. Agastya Sen, nicknamed "August" for his Anglophile tendencies, is the urbane, aimless son of a respected government official. After college he enters the elite Indian Administrative Service and is posted to the remote provincial village of Madna. Without conviction or ambition, "interested in nothing," he only wants to "crush the restlessness in his mind." Brutal heat, tedium, insomnia and the absurdities of his job-compounded by a daily regimen of marijuana-only add fuel to his dissolution. Between feeble attempts at learning the ins and outs of district administration from his appointed mentor, Srivastav, a hilarious popinjay, Agastya reduces his routine to a joyless cycle of pot smoking, masturbation and nocturnal distance running. This study in lassitude rambles on at a pace that reflects the rhythms of the insouciant main character's life, but Chatterjee (The Last Burden), himself an IAS officer, creates a comic, entertaining portrayal of an administrator's life in the sticks. (Apr.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Originally published in 1988, Chatterjee's witty and lyrical first novel became a best seller in his native India. It features young Agastya ("August") Sen, who has joined the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) and is sent to Madna, famed for being the hottest small town in India. There, the fairly privileged August, who grew up in Delhi speaking English, experiences as much cultural shock as any non-Indian. The novel's tension, humor, and misery display when his slacker, Westernized behavior clashes with expectations in this richly diverse but truly Indian town. Not the least of his challenges is coming to terms with the piles of paperwork and his own lack of ambition. August alleviates his unhappiness with marijuana use and almost habitual masturbation but eventually comes to terms with his decision to enter the IAS. Chatterjee skillfully develops both Madna and the IAS so that they also evolve into major characters, adding to this novel's unique texture. Chatterjee has already written a sequel, The Mammaries of the Welfare State, and Dev Benegal made English, August into a film in 1994. It is hard to believe that it has taken this book so long to reach American readers, but once they finish it, they will agree it was well worth the wait. A contribution not just to Indian literature but to world literature; highly recommended.-Faye A. Chadwell, Univ. of Oregon Libs., Eugene Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A slacker seeks career success and sexual fulfillment in Chatterjee's 1988 first novel, since proclaimed a contemporary Indian classic. It's set in 1983, when educated underachiever Agastya Sen (nicknamed "August," and also English-for his avid Anglophilia) forsakes New Delhi to train as a District Collector (roughly, what a County Manager might be in America) in the overpopulated, underprivileged village of Madna. Everyone important to him is elsewhere: his girlfriend of sorts off to study in America, his mother deceased, his father absorbed in a high administrative post in Bengal, his pot-smoking best pal Dhrubo reachable only through letters in which Agastya itemizes his many frustrations. Madna, reputedly the hottest place in India, is a sinkhole of maladministration, adorned by the garish statue of Mahatma Gandhi that presides over its indigence, "run" by such non-notables as a police chief distracted by, and addicted, to pornography, and populated in part by coworkers for whom Agastya contrives a fictitious personal history complete with adoring wife and distinguished family. The duties of a District Collector are multitudinous and degrading, as evidenced by a painfully hilarious sequence in which Agastya is unwisely entrusted with devising a working water supply to replace a dried-up well. It's an image of his own loneliness, depression, sexual tensions (relieved by compulsive masturbation) and avid consumption of pot (he gets through most days contentedly stoned). There's a brief escape back to New Delhi, but the pursuit of a career in publishing is derailed by the manic incompetence of Agastya's flamboyant second cousin Tonic. This beautifully written book strikes a nifty balanceamong satiric comedy, pointed social commentary and penetrating characterization. Widely considered India's Catcher in the Rye, it also echoes both R.K. Narayan's Malgudi novels and J.P. Donleavy's classic portrayal of rampant, unrepentant maleness, The Ginger Man. Excellent stuff. Let's have Chatterjee's other novels, please.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781590171790
  • Publisher: New York Review Books
  • Publication date: 4/4/2006
  • Series: New York Review Books Classics Series
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 951,875
  • Product dimensions: 5.01 (w) x 7.97 (h) x 0.87 (d)

Meet the Author

Born in India, UPAMANYU CHATTERJEE attended St. Stephen’s College in Delhi. He joined the Indian Administrative Service in 1983, later moving to the United Kingdom to serve as the Writer in Residence at the University of Kent. A writer of short stories and novels, he was appointed Director of Languages in the Ministry of Human Resource Development for the Indian government.

AKHIL SHARMA was born in Delhi, India. He grew up in Edison, New Jersey. His stories have appeared in the Best American Short Stories anthology, the O. Henry Award Winners anthology, The Atlantic Monthly, and The New Yorker. He is a winner of The Voice Literary Supplement’s Year 2000 "Writers on the Verge" Award.

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Read an Excerpt

ENGLISH, AUGUST

An Indian Story
By UPAMANYU CHATTERJEE

NEW YORK REVIEW BOOKS

Copyright © 2006 Akhil Sharma
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1-59017-179-9


Chapter One

Through the windshield they watched the wide silent road, so well-lit and dead. New Delhi, one in the morning, a stray dog flashed across the road, sensing prey. "So when shall we meet again?" asked Dhrubo for the eighth time in one hour. Not that parting was too agonizing and that he couldn't bear to leave the car, but that marijuana caused acute lethargy.

"Uh ..." said Agastya and paused, for the same reason. Dhrubo put the day's forty-third cigarette to his lips and seemed to take very long to find his matchbox. His languorous attempts to light a match became frenzied before he succeeded. Watching him Agastya laughed silently.

Dhrubo exhaled richly out of the window, and said, "I've a feeling, August, you're going to get hazaar fucked in Madna." Agastya had just joined the Indian Administrative Service and was going for a year's training in district administration to a small district town called Madna.

"Amazing mix, the English we speak. Hazaar fucked. Urdu and American," Agastya laughed, "a thousand fucked, really fucked. I'm sure nowhere else could languages be mixed and spoken with such ease." The slurred sounds of the comfortable tiredness of intoxication, "'You look hazaar fucked, Marmaduke dear.' 'YesDorothea, I'm afraid I do feel hazaar fucked'-see, doesn't work. And our accents are Indian, but we prefer August to Agastya. When I say our accents, I, of course, exclude yours, which is unique in its fucked mongrelness-you even say 'Have a nice day' to those horny women at your telephones when you pass by with your briefcase, and when you agree with your horrendous boss, which is all the time, you say 'yeah, great' and 'uh-uh.'"

"Don't talk shit," Dhrubo said and then added in Bengali, "You're hurt about your mother tongue," and started laughing, an exhilarated volley. That was a ten-year-old joke from their school-days in Darjeeling, when they had been envious of some of the Anglo-Indian boys who spoke and behaved differently, and did alarmingly badly in exams and didn't seem to mind, they were the ones who were always with the Tibetan girls and claimed to know all about sex. On an early summer afternoon, in the small football field among the hills, with an immaculate sky and the cakelike white-and-brownness of Kanchanjanga, Agastya and Prashant had been watching (Agastya disliked football and Prashant disliked games) the usual showing off with the ball. Shouts in the air from the Anglos (which increased whenever any Tibetan female groups passed the field, echoing like a distant memory, "Pass it here, men!" "This way, men!" "You can't shoot, your foot's made of turd or what men!" (Agastya had never heard any Anglo say "man"). He and Prashant had been lazily cynical about those who shouted the most and whose faces also contorted with a secret panic in the rare moments when the ball did reach them. Then some Tibetan girls had come together and taken out a fucking guitar. "The Tibs and the Anglos always have guitars," Prashant had said. Football had been abandoned. Then laughter and twanging. "It's the colour of the Anglo and Tib thighs," Prashant had said, "not like us." Agastya's envy had then blurted out, he wished he had been Anglo-Indian, that he had Keith or Alan for a name, that he spoke English with their accent. From that day his friends had more new names for him, he became the school's "last Englishman," or just "hey English" (his friends meant "hey Anglo" but didn't dare), and sometimes even "hello Mother Tongue"-illogical and whimsical, but winsome choices, like most names selected by contemporaries. And like most names, they had paled with the passage of time and place, all but August, but they yet retained with them the knack of bobbing up out of some abyss on the unexpected occasion, and nudging a chunk or two of his past.

A truck roared by, shattering the dark. "Out there in Madna quite a few people are going to ask you what you're doing in the Administrative Service. Because you don't look the role. You look like a porn film actor, thin and kinky, the kind who wears a bra. And a bureaucrat ought to be soft and cleanshaven, bespectacled, and if a Tamil Brahmin, given to rapid quoting of rules. I really think you're going to get hazaar fucked."

"I'd much rather act in a porn film than be a bureaucrat. But I suppose one has to live."

"Let's smoke a last one, shall we," said Dhrubo, picking up the polythene bag from the car seat. "In Yale a Ph.D wasn't a joke. It meant something. It was significant. Students thought before they enrolled. But here in Delhi, all over India," Dhrubo threw some loose tobacco out of the window, "education is biding time, a meaningless accumulation of degrees, BA, MA, then an M.Phil. while you join the millions in trying your luck at the Civil Services exam. So many people every year seem to find government service so interesting," he paused to scratch his elbow, "I wonder how many people think about where their education is leading them."

"Yet you returned from Yale," Agastya yawned.

"But mine is not the typical Indian story. That ends with the Indian living somewhere in the First World, comfortably or uncomfortably. Or perhaps coming back to join the Indian Administrative Service, if lucky."

"You're wrong about education, though. Most must be like me, with no special aptitude for anything, not even wondering how to manage, not even really thinking. Try your luck with everything, something hopefully will click. There aren't unlimited opportunities in the world."

They smoked. Dhrubo leaned forward to drop loose tobacco from his shirt. "Madna was the hottest place in India last year, wasn't it. It will be another world, completely different. Should be quite educative." Dhrubo handed the smoke to Agastya. "Excellent stuff. What'll you do for sex and marijuana in Madna?"

(Continues...)



Excerpted from ENGLISH, AUGUST by UPAMANYU CHATTERJEE Copyright © 2006 by Akhil Sharma. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 12, 2006

    A thought-provoking, philosophical, memorable novel by a remarkable prose stylist

    Like a very funny and witty note sealed into an empty wine bottle and tossed into the Arabian Sea by a sailor in Mumbai, India, ¿English, August¿ has now reached the shores of the USA after floating across the oceans for eighteen years. This funny and thought-provoking first novel by the Indian writer Upamanyu Chatterjee was first published in London by Faber and Faber in 1988, and in India by Penguin Books India. It became a best seller mainly through word of mouth and excellent reviews, and nearly unanimous acclaim from the critics. Now, eighteen years after it was published in London, it has been published in the USA by New York Review of Books. The saying: Better late than never, is certainly true in this case. Back in 1988, The Times Literary Supplement declared: ¿A remarkably mature first novel¿, and the Glasgow Herald enthused, ¿Brings a breath of fresh talent to Indian fiction¿. Now, the Washington Post has declared, ¿He¿s a writer worth discovering, and 'English, August¿ is the place to start.' Even the hard to please and frequently acerbic Kirkus Reviews has declared: ¿Excellent stuff. Let¿s have Chatterjee¿s other novels, please.¿ Well, if they wish to read more novels by Upamanyu, three more are available: the sequel to this novel, titled ¿The Mammaries of the Welfare State¿ published in 2000, The Last Burden (1993), and Weight Loss (January 2006). The novel is about a well educated young man named Agastya Sen, from a prosperous family. His father is the governor of Bengal. Agastya is named after a wise and learned mythological sage mentioned in the Hindu scripture, Ramayana. Agastya takes the Civil Service exam with the hope of joining the elite, exclusive, and high-paying Indian Administrative Service (IAS). For his training as an Assistant Controller, the government posts him to a tiny village named Madna, ¿the hottest place in India¿. The novel covers the time, one year, the hero spent in the village for his training. Writes Upamanyu in simple, elegant, unadorned and crystalline prose: They smoked. Dhrubo leaned forward to drop loose tobacco from his shirt. ¿Madna was the hottest place in India last year, wasn¿t it? It will be another world, completely different. Should be quite educative.¿ Dhrubo handed the smoke to Agastya. ¿Excellent stuff. What¿ll you do for sex and marijuana in Madna?¿ From the first sentence of the novel, a reader can sense that he is reading the work of a notable prose stylist. ¿Through the windshield they watched the silent road, so well-lit and dead. New Delhi, one in the morning, a stray dog flashed across the road, sensing prey.¿ Quite a few of his sentences reminded me of the great writer Arundhati Roy, author of ¿The God of Small Things¿. ¿Then the rains came to Madna. Suddenly a roar and a drumroll, as of a distant war. The world turned monochromatic¿cloud, building, tree, road, they all diffused into one blurred shade of slate.¿ There are several fascinating, memorable, well-drawn characters in the novel bureaucrats and their snobbish wives, a visiting westerner, a holy man, and there is even a police chief who likes pornography. This novel is hilarious and unforgettable. Long after you finish the novel, don¿t be surprised if you burst out laughing suddenly, when you recall an especially funny sentence, or two, from the book. A fine writer, Upamanyu deserves greater recognition outside India. A thoroughly entertaining movie based on this novel, and directed by India¿s Dev Benegal, was released in 1994.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 25, 2005

    Hilarious

    Not many are able to capture the mind numbing thoughts caused by extreme loneliness, depression and listlessness...thoughts that are so trivial that Chatterjee stands proudly compared to the likes of George Orwell (Burmese Days)

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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