Book Review

English, August

Upamanyu Chatterjee's English, August

Serendipity is understated.

I love to buy books. I read many of the book reviews that come in newspapers, score through Goodreads comments, sort by ratings on Amazon for good books to buy – the act of reading will always happen months or years after the purchase! A few months back while I was in New Delhi sight-seeing, I strolled through the famous Palika Bazaar, and there, in one of the shelves at the back of the store was this book – English, August by Upamanyu Chatterjee. It was the simple book cover sporting a typical Indian Government Officer’s Table and Desk, with a byline “An Indian Story”, that attracted me. And what a book, it turned out to be!

The novel is about Agastya Sen (aka August), a recent recruit in the I.A.S. (Indian Administrative Service), undergoing his induction and training under the district’s collector Mr R.N.Srivatsav, in a small town called Madna, which was over thousand kilometres from both Delhi and Calcutta on either direction. Agastya was half-Bengali and half-Goanese Catholic, a character definition that’s wide enough for the author to play with. 

As we read the first few pages, we get transported to a train that had started in New Delhi and about to stop in Madna, we then join Agastya as he is escorted by the local naib tehsildar to The Government Rest House – to a big room there, which was furnished like a house with a bed, a dressing table, a dining table with four chairs, a sofa, two armchairs, a desk and chair, two small tables and a beautiful bookshelf is where will live for the next 288 pages. In the room, we keep staring at a painting of two sunsets, a boat, and a boatman in a Japanese conical hat, donated by R.Tamse, Deputing Engineer, Public Works Division – 4th July 1962. We share the horrible breakfast which always was Bread, soft-boiled egg, sliced tomato, sliced boiled potato, tea and tin of condensed milk, served by resident caretaker Vasant and hear his children playing in the backyard. We even travel with Agastya when he moves to Jompanna, a village some few hundred kilometres from Madna when he gets posted as BDO.

Instead of learning every day and working hard, Agastya lazes through the mornings, returns in the afternoon to the rest house to smoke a joint, sleep, and in the evening getting drunk with his fellow Shankar from Revenue Department or Sathe, a journalist who owns the town’s best hotel. Agastya is not a bad guy, in fact, he is a good guy – there is, very little for him to do actually – the novel is about his own trepidation over his choices in life. The novel has humour running throughout, like when Agastya introduces himself to every person he meets differently, not with a need to hide anything, it is just for fun. It feels so lifelike reading Agastya’s experiences visiting The Madna Club, and the picnic by the entire district officialdom and their families to the Lord Shiv temple near Gorapak built by Chandela dynasty and sporting like many other Hindu temples sexy sculptures.

The author of the book Mr Upamanya Chatterjee is a Sahitya Akademi winner and being himself an IAS Officer, this novel benefits from his own experiences on the ground. We see the many roles that keep the Indian Bureaucracy running including Deputy Collector (Direct Recruit), BDO (Block Development Officer), District Supply Officer, Forest Service Officer, District Inspector of Land Records and many others. I feel Government of India, should give his book to every new recruit of IAS instead of giving them huge black books like the Madna District Gazetteer, that no one reads! We can see the contrast of Indian’s interest in our history when we read about a foreigner Mr John Avery and his fiance, who has travelled from U.K. to see the place where his grandfather Mr Richard Avery, then serving as the Collector during British Raj got killed by a tiger in 1923. 

A fine novel, that is sure to entertain its readers.


Also published on Medium.

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