“Hopefully you’ll be back when your next book is written,” says the manager at a bookstore in San Francisco to Upamanyu Chatterjee after a reading. “It already is,” says Chatterjee with a bemused smile. “In fact, I have three more.” It’s just thatEnglish, August, which catapulted him to fame in India in 1988 is finally reaching American shores although its creator (and its hero) have long moved on with their lives.
It’s not difficult to understand why in an age when Bollywood films can release the same day in Fremont as in Mumbai, English, August took the slow boat to America. The book is just so Indian, it’s difficult to imagine anyone else can really “get” it. Writer Suketu Mehta calls it “the ‘Indianest’ novel in English.” That’s an apt description. The adventures of Agastya Sen aka August aka English as a fresh-off-the-train bureaucrat in the small town of Madna was an instant hit in Indian book circles because it was so recognizable. It also baffled some Western critics. Understandably, says Chatterjee. “It seems impossible. If you haven’t seen an Indian small town, how can you begin to appreciate the book?” he asks.
But now it’s reached the United States, thanks to the persistence of a new set of writers who have always been fans of English, August. Akhil Sharma shot to prominence in the United States with his novel, An Obedient Father, which won the 2001 Pen Hemingway Prize. He ran into Chatterjee at a literary festival in Paris in 2002 where he told him he’d try to get the book published in the United States. “I thought he was just being polite,” says Chatterjee. But two years later Sharma called Chatterjee out of the blue. “It’s on,” he said. Sharma even wrote the foreword to the new edition. It’s part of the New York Review of Books Classics series, making Chatterjee one of the few living writers published in the series. “I feel both privileged and doomed,” he says wryly.
But as he travels around the United States, accompanied by the ghost of a long-ago Agastya Sen, Chatterjee says he feels “a bit like Rip van Winkle waking up to a new world.” It’s not just that he’s older, some 20 years removed from the man who created the Agastya Sen who longed for “marijuana, and nakedness and soft hopelessly incongruous music (Tagore or Chopin)” in the unrelenting glare and unremitting boredom of Madna. Even India has changed radically in the 20 years since Agastya stepped off the train to Madna into a life of masturbation, naib-tehsildars and reading Marcus Aurelius.
Chatterjee says the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) itself has changed because of the way it now recruits its officers. “You have fewer of these hep cat Anglophones from India’s better universities going out into the battered beyond to administer the world in Telugu and Marathi while listening to Jim Morrisson and Bob Dylan,” he chuckles. Even the balance of power is shifting. The collector used to hoist the flag on Independence Day. Now it’s the minister who does so. “Real power has passed to the politician,” says Chatterjee. “In many ways it’s a good change. It’s good that the language of administration in a small town in Maharashtra is now Marathi.” Even the notoriously hidebound Indian bureaucracy is feeling the nips of change. “A Right to Information Act has been passed,” says Chatterjee. “Records are computerized and people can demand photocopies of their files. You find you can’t actually evade responsibility by hemming and hawing.”
What about Madna though? The small town that he memorably described as “cigarette-and-paan dhabas, disreputable food stalls, both lit by fierce kerosene lamps, cattle and clanging rickshaws on the road”—how would Madna have changed? “It will have Internet,” he says thoughtfully. “A million mobile phones and cable television. No electricity perhaps but running on generators.” Then he pauses. “But the spirit is still the same—the hopeless ugliness.” (Usually with a squat dwarfish standard issue statue of a bespectacled man passed off as Gandhi.)
It’s Chatterjee’s eye for the particular that makes both English, August and Madna come alive. Unlike a Rushdie whose language constructs fabulous multi-hued worlds that exist just outside the realms of reality, Chatterjee’s Madna is so real you can almost smell the stench of its drains. Even the Circuit House with its tang of Flit, the plop of careless lizards falling to the floor, the verandah bathed in the sickly glow of a tubelight is, as Akhil Sharma marvels in his foreword, “spot on.” It’s characters are not fantastic, they are fleshily, sweatily real—whether it’s Mrs. Srivastav (Madam Collector) who wears a black bra under her yellow blouse, or Tamse, the executive engineer who fancies himself to be an artist (“the usual improbably Rest-House painting—a sunset, and water, and therefore two sunsets, a boat, a boatman in a Japanese conical hat, on the shore two trees, like giant mushrooms”).
Chatterjee revels in its particularity, saying that’s what makes the book come alive. While literary critics might find it fashionable to argue that great literature should be universal, Chatterjee demurs. “Tolstoy, I’m sure makes infinitely more sense in Russian,” he says. “It’s just better that we read him in translation than not at all.” Of course, that’s not to say August can never leave Madna. Chatterjee remembers a civil servant from Malaysia writing him to say, “This is me.” Perhaps he says what is universal is “that sense of feeling out of place in your own country.”
It’s that feeling that’s at the core of English, August (and probably much of its appeal). Many readers remember it as a wicked satire that took on the behemoth of Indian bureaucracy but English, August is really the coming-of-age story of a young man who, as Chatterjee puts it, “despite all that Bob Dylan and Pink Floyd music, is inconceivable outside of India.”
Chatterjee got the idea for the book while watching his elder brother and his friends join the IAS. At that time, he says, there was “nothing else to do,” especially if you had done “liberal humanities courses.” (Nowadays he says with a smile, the horizons are wider. “You can join TV and within six months become a one-man think tank and interrogate a minister.”) But watching his brother and his friends set out to the back of beyond, he was intrigued by this strange arranged marriage of two Indias. When he himself joined the IAS in 1983 he was posted in Chandrapur, which he describes as simply “awful.” But in writing about that first year, he realized that in order to make it comprehensible to the world outside he’d have to make it as funny as possible. In reality, he says the trainee officer’s life isn’t quite the pot-wreathed haze Agastya lives in. “There’s no time when you are trying to administer a 17-18,000 sq.km. area, going to an eye donation camp three hours away in the morning, or looking after kharif crops.” Or, as Agastya might have added, “Family Planning vasectomy and tubectomy camps, school table-tennis championships, bridge tournaments, meetings of the Youth Club …”
But he started writing short stories about his experiences. In fact, one of them, The Killings in Madna, predates English, August. But he never wanted to lose that training year as a frame and that in the end is what became the skeleton for English, August. But in 1985-86 when he was writing the book there were no publishers in India for original English fiction. “They only published geometry books,” he quips. He sent it off to London where it was published and then reprinted in India. It was in a curious way a rather appropriate circuitous journey. This book is all about the “once removed.” “As soon as you start talking about India in English you distance yourself from the world you describe,” says Chatterjee. “In the worlds I describe, the action isn’t in English. I report in English.”
He is what one of his characters would call “an English type—an Indian who speaks English more fluently than he speaks any Indian language.” Chatterjee says he does government work in Hindi, writes Puja cards in Bengali, but it “doesn’t mean I can write a book in either. You can’t choose the language you write in.”
When the book first came out, it became a bestseller and is still prominently displayed in almost every Indian bookstore stocking English books. But the criticisms were also many. Agastya Sen was not a nice guy, just way too self-absorbed. The book was a perversion, an exercise in intellectual masturbation. Nothing happened in it. After all, Agastya “would stop at his seventeenth push-up and watch drops of sweat fall on the carpet.” Even worse, the urbane sophisticated Chatterjee was mocking rural India. “I get outraged when I hear that,” says Chatterjee.
What hasn’t helped is he is notoriously media shy and has a reputation of not even wanting to read in India. “Nonsense,” he says. “That was because when my book Weight Loss was launched I didn’t want to invite the whole civil service to it. Because there isn’t a single clean passage in it that I can read in front of my bosses.”
Though he prefers to just write a book, send it off to his agent in London, and go back to his 9-5 job in the administrative service, he’s touched to see how many young people show up at his readings even now.
English, August has already had another unlikely rebirth. Dev Benegal made it into a film starring Rahul Bose. “The book is much better,” says Chatterjee but then adds, “The film is a heroic effort and it gets the district atmosphere just right.” What really impresses him that it even got made. It was a rather unlikely creature to find funding—”neither Salman Khan in a sando ganjee nor Pather Panchali-style poverty with kids with large heads and protruding ribs.”
Unlikely as it might be, baffling as it might be to some of its critics, English, August is now enjoying its second innings. And Chatterjee isn’t complaining. He says he just takes it as it comes, even fame.
Recently he went to his office and everyone started congratulating him from the moment he stepped into the elevator. At first he thought he’d got a new posting. When his own personal assistant said congratulations, he couldn’t hold back and sheepishly asked what he’d done. “Don’t you know, sir?” said the P.A. incredulously. “Didn’t you watch Kaun Banega Crorepati last night?” Apparently English, August and its creator Upamanyu Chatterjee had been a question on the mega popular quiz show. Enunciated in the deep baritone of Amitabh Bachchan, Upamanyu Chatterjee had suddenly moved up in the world at least in the eyes of thousands of fellow Indians. Compared to that promotion, Agastya Sen’s American holiday is small potatoes, indeed. Agastya would have appreciated the irony. As he flailed around anchorlessly in Madna trying to figure out the answer to his life, he had himself become the answer on a quiz show.
Sandip Roy-Chowdhury is on the editorial board of India Currents and host of UpFront, a newsmagazine show on KALW 91.7 produced by New California Media.