Quick Review: English, August by Upamanyu Chatterjee
It was the blurb on the back of this book that initially attracted me. The synopsis likens this Indian novel to a synthesis of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces and J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, with an Indian twist. I see now where the comparisons come from, but I think Chatterjee’s novel—though excellent—falls just short of such a literary pinnacle. English, August (NYRB, 2006) is often quite funny, but it lacks the page-after-page laugh-out-loud hilarity that characterizes Toole’s masterpiece. It loses its comedic tendencies, in fact, when the novel approaches the serious moments of self-discovery that characterizes Salinger’s timeless piece.
Nevertheless, English, August is a first-rate story. The story is of Agastya Sen (whose friends call him August and tease him for acting “English”) who, instead of going to university in the West, finds himself piddling about in the sticks in a government job. In the town of Madna, Agastya is to learn the ropes of his bureaucratic track, but instead of embracing his newfound career path, Agastya goes along to get along. Between the doldrums of training for his official duties, Agastya succumbs to bouts of loneliness, marijuana smoking, and drunken reverie (and sometimes all three simultaneously). Underlying his day-to-day activities is the nagging question of what to do with himself: Is he on the right career path? Did he make the right decision to skip the university? Should he apply for another job in the big city? In short, Agastya’s story is one of self-discovery, though much like in life, a real answer is never achieved.
The reader can be forgiven for believing that the critical moments of Agastya's self-discovery occur in the rural city of Madna where he does much of his training, but for me, the story’s most telling experiences actually appear almost exactly halfway through the novel. It comes when Agastya takes a holiday from his workaday routine to visit the more cultured, bustling metropolis where he believes he belongs. “Then at last the passage to Delhi. But it would be so fugitive, thought Agastya, it would provide no repose, would instead only salt his restlessness.” How right he was. This visit is his Holden Caulfield moment.
Many have experienced the trial of leaving home for a strange land, only to feel the pull of home calling you back. Old stories. Old places and faces. They all beckon. And so, when we make that journey back for a holiday visit or celebratory reunion, we discover that, unknowingly, in our strange land, we actually had grown and matured and moved on from our old lives. That in fact, the place we thought we always belonged to becomes foreign precisely because the familiar sights, sounds, and smells remain stuck in a past. It’s at that moment we realize, away from home, we had begun a new chapter. That a second life, or at least a second wind, could only have happened outside our comfort zones. To me, this is the essence of English, August. The self-discovery happens only when August can gain perspective on his life and situation by literally putting distance between himself and all that he once held near and dear.
Not that Agastya finds an answer as to who or what he should be in life. But just as importantly, he discovers who and what he no longer is—and this is a universal lesson we often take for granted.
Lastly, a note on the subtitle: "An Indian Story." Why is this necessary? Do Indian authors—those still living in India, that is, versus those holed up at Columbia University or Oxford—have an axe to grind? A bone to pick? A complex to overcome? In the introduction, Akhil Sharma alludes to the simmering desire for Indian authors to write the Indian novel. As if such a thing could be done! India is a constructed country, defined by borders drawn by outsiders. There are over a billion citizens (a majority of whom live in rural areas), who speak dozens of languages, representing a broad spectrum of religious beliefs, ethnic ties, education levels, occupational positions, social class locations, and on and on. Chatterjee tells us with the subtitle "an Indian story" that this novel is distinctly Indian (in food, jokes, sounds, etc), but it cannot be the Indian story. It's just one. One of 1.2 billion.
This is one of several "quick reviews," a series that provides a snapshot of international arts and culture.
Follow Shaun on Twitter @shaunrandol