PDF | On Jan 1, , Krushna Chandra Mishra and others published Upamanyu Chatterjee's English, August – A Post-colonial. NEW YORK REvIEW bOOKS. New York. ENGLISH, AUGUST. An Indian Story. UPAMANYU CHATTERJEE. Introduction by. AKHIL SHARMA. Editorial Reviews. From Publishers Weekly. Chatterjee's slacker bildungsroman, first published English, August: An Indian Story by [Chatterjee, Upamanyu].
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The very title of Upamanyu Chatterjee's novel English August: An Indian Story lays great might have otherwise been Indian Agastya: An English Story. The. English, August by Upamanyu Chatterjee. 'Agastya's story is convincing, entertaining, moving—and timeless. It merits an accolade that's far. Reading the Uninteresting: Upamanyu. Chatterjee's English, August: An Indian Story. The only obligation to which in advance we may hold a novel is that.
An Indian Story may be inclined to ask themselves the same thing. But if the reader is expecting anything to happen during this purgatorial year in the provinces, if they are anticipating the usual pleasures of an unfolding narrative, they are likely to be sorely disappointed. And this is precisely what our hero does for one calendar year and pages: So where does all this leave us as readers?
These are some of the questions I will seek to address in the following pages. This entropy, I would like to suggest, eventually leaks into the structure of the narrative itself, provoking a crisis of meaning and disruption of desire that very nearly brings it to the point of total collapse.
Under these circumstances, to narrate one day is to narrate every day, and to narrate every day is to narrate the same Project MUSE promotes the creation and dissemination of essential humanities and social science resources through collaboration with libraries, publishers, and scholars worldwide. The Collectorate was a one-storey stone building. Its corridors had benches and more people. The naib tehsildar led him to a biggish hall full of mostly unoccupied desks, and through another door.
A fat officious man said, Yes? The naib tehsildar mumbled something and the officious man immediately turned servile.
Good morning, sir. Collector saab not yet come, sir. Myself Chidambaram, Reader to Collector. Kindly accompany me to RDC's room sir. They moved through another door and down a central corridor, also crowded with people, benches and water coolers. Another door, with C. Joshi, RDC above it. There were three men inside, Chidambaram mumbled something. They all stood and shook hands, the two younger ones called him sir.
All introduced themselves, Agastya didn't catch a single name, and didn't bother. Thank God for marijuana, he thought. Formal pleasant conversation, someone brought in thick sweet tea, which the others drank from their saucers. After some slow haphazard guesswork he decided that the man on his right was Ahmed.
Joshi was, or should be, the old jovial man behind the desk. On his right was what had sounded like Agarwal. Ahmed was immediately obnoxious, with blank eyes and a false smile. He never listened when anyone else was speaking, but always looked down at his thick forearms and flexed them. Whatever that was, thought Agastya, but nodded with what he hoped was appropriate awe. He eventually got to know, but by accident as it were, what a Deputy Collector Direct Recruit was, and where a naib tehsildar stood in the Revenue hierarchy.
He himself made no effort to know his new world; as it unfolded, it looked less interesting to him; and later, even to see how far he could extend his ignorance became an obscure and perverse challenge. Sitting with the three men, he was again assailed by a sense of the unreal.
I don't look like a bureaucrat, what am I doing here. I should have been a photographer, or a maker of ad films, something like that, shallow and urban. How old are you, sir? 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. 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.
He went on like this, careless with details. His parents were in Antarctica, members of the first Indian expedition. Yes, even his mother, she had a Ph. D in Oceanography from the Sorbonne. After a while the personal questions stopped.
Later he felt guilty, but only for a very brief while.
Chidambaram poked his head in and said that the Collector had come. Joshi accompanied Agastya. Srivastav was short and fat and shouting at someone standing in front of him when they entered. He asked them to sit down and continued shouting. If you can tick off a subordinate in the language, thought Agastya, you're really fluent. On the far side of the desk stood a trembling black suppliant, weeping fresh tears, as though he had just been beaten.
The other old man being shouted at turned out to be the District Supply Officer. Later Agastya would conclude that they all looked the same, the denizens of the Collectorate, ageing, with soft faces that hadn't seen much sunlight. They all wore pale shirts and loose pants. Their shirt pockets bulged outrageously with pens and spectacle cases.
Most smelt nice, of some very Indian perfume, or scented hairoil, or paan. They could withstand, like placid buffalo, anything that an industrious superior could shriek at them. The District Supply Officer's face shone gently in the volley from the Collector. Lambent dullness, Agastya remembered abruptly, now where was that? Suddenly he was back in his college English class three years ago, with Absalom and Achitophel open in front of him, stoned and watching the new female teacher perform.
Nervousness had made her aggressive. Narasimhan, beside him, also stoned, had asked her some stupid question. Your question doesn't make any sense, she had said, arching her back. There had been giggles from the gigglers. Narasimhan had laboriously scrawled a long note on his Dryden and passed it to him.
August, tell her, Yes, my lovely bitch, when my hands are full with your flat buttocks, my mouth on either breast, I shall give you lust-gnaws between your absalom and achitophel. His laugh had even woken up the back row.
He had been sent out. The Supply Officer wiped his forehead with a manycoloured handkerchief. Yes, lambent dullness, definitely. That he could relate a phrase from an eighteenth-century English poet to this, a sweating Supply Officer in a Collector's office, in Madna, made him smile. The Collector paused for breath, said, Hello, you've to get used to this. An administrator's job is not easy, and returned to biting the Supply Officer's sweating head off.
The shrieking stopped after a while and the Supply Officer left. At the door he again used his many-coloured handkerchief. The weeping man left too, after many namastes and two half-prostrations, forehead touching the Collector's desk. Srivastav smiled at Agastya. His sideburns were like right-angled triangles, the hypotenuses of which looked like the shadows of his cheekbones. Agastya, what kind of name is Agastya, bhai? When you were in your mother's lap, you ignoramus, he said silently, drooling and piddling, didn't she make your head spin into sleep with the verses of some venerable Hindu epic?
Agastya is Sanskrit, he wanted to say, for one who shits only one turd every morning. But the Collector didn't really want any answer. Staccato conversation, while he rushed through his files. Someone was there to pick you up yesterday at the station? How's the room at the Rest House? Lots of mosquitoes, sir. The Collector threw every finished file on the ground.
They landed, depending on their weight, with dull thumps or sharp claps. Thus he eroded the mountains on his desk, and the files lay like corpses in a battlefield, perhaps giving him the illusion that he was victorious.
Oh, mosquitoes, yes, I can see that from your face. A quick side-glance at him. I tell you, Madna must be one of the unhealthiest places in India. Hot, humid, disease, everything.
Are you boiling your water? I told the naib tehsildar to tell you. Thanks for that, sir. But I'm not quite sure whether the cook at the Rest House here understood yesterday what boiling means.
Yes, you'll face the problem of language in Madna. They can't even speak Hindi properly. He rang the bell. Get some tea.
He suddenly leaned back and scowled. You see, in North India and Bengal and other places, everyone can follow Hindi. Agastya was a little disconcerted by his Collector's scowls. Later he saw that that was his official face; at home, too, that face was occasionally donned, but only for office work, or when his wife or children behaved like his subordinates.
And now everything from the State Government comes in the regional language.
They think this'll increase administrative efficiency. He wiped his face and forearms with a yellow hand-towel. Rubbish, these fellows.
He scowled at Joshi.
Joshi saab, arrange for some kind of a language tutor for Mr. And later you must subscribe to a vernacular newspaper, that'll also help, but not the Dainik, that just publishes nonsense. Joshi took notes, pen poised to record anything that the Collector might disgorge. Joshi's pad seemed to irritate Srivastav; it obliged him to emit noteworthy sentences.
Chidambaram, get Mr. Sen the District Gazetteer. Sir, may I have a look at the map? Yes please, while I finish some of this. Agastya left his chair for the huge district map on the wall behind Srivastav. For the first few minutes nothing made sense. He finally located Madna town. God, the district was huge.
The southern bits seemed heavily forested, that would be a good area to visit. Srivastav's voice penetrated intermittently. I want to suspend this Supply Officer bugger. That corrupt cement dealer in Pinchri taluka has again been passing off bloody sand as cement and this Supply Officer can't haul him up because he's getting his cut too.
Agastya contemplated the improbable, that soon, in a few months, he would be mouthing similar incomprehensibilities and acting appropriately.
Chidambaram touched his elbow with a huge black book. He returned to his chair with the Madna District Gazetteer. Don't read that now, take it back with you. It's wonderful reading. Agastya opened it. It's ancient, sir. It hasn't been updated since Srivastav scowled. Who has the time? Either you work, or you write a history. Those fellows never worked. He picked up his cup. You'll soon see how the people here drink tea. Always from the saucer, look.
They watched a smiling Joshi pour his tea into his saucer. Tastes better this way, Joshi said. Srivastav, it seemed, had a lot to say to his protg; he just didn't know where to begin, and bounded from one topic to another.
You have a copy of your training programme. For the last two months you'll be Block Development Officer and before that you'll be attached to various district offices. The first three weeks is with the Collectorate. And this first week you sit with me and try to grasp the work of the Collector. After all, in a few months you'll be Assistant Collector, doing in a subdivision what I do at the district level.
There's an Integration gathering at the Gandhi Hall at twelve fifteen. We'll go for that.
Integration as in National Integration? Yes, but here it's called something else, of course. Srivastav rang the bell and said something to the peon. Joshi left. You just see how many people come to meet the Collector every day, like they'll meet you when you're Block Development Officer later, scowled Srivastav at Agastya, and then at the villagers whom the peon had just ushered in.
Reverentially they unfolded and handed Srivastav a sheet of paper. Its black creases seemed to mark its tortuous journey, slipping off the hands of one unhelpful official into another's. A conversation ensued, Srivastav scowling less as he understood more, the voices of the villagers slowly gaining in confidence. Then while Srivastav scribbled the villagers waited, patient and passive, strong hands bent suppliantly.
They had brought in a smell of sweat and the earth, but they weren't thought Agastya irrelevantly, with a vacuous half-smile remotely sexy, just sad, and then he felt vaguely guilty.
Two of them looked at him now and again, he didn't fit into the Collectorate. The visitors came all day. Agastya could eventually categorize them. Indeed, that was all he could do, since the conversations were beyond him. The petitioners always stood. Srivastav asked them to sit only if it seemed that they would take long; if they sat it was on the edge of the chair.
The variety of complaints, from the little that Agastya grasped through instinct, gestures and the occasional tell-tale Hindi or English phrase, was bewildering, and the area of action spread over a district of 17, square kilometres so the first paragraph of the Gazetteer had said.
Someone had encroached on one petitioner's land, and the petitioner had received no help from the tehsildar. The police patil in a village had connived at a murder, and the entire police hierarchy seemed to be backing him up. Labourers on daily wages at some road site complained that the contractor paid them irregularly.
A naib tehsildar somewhere seemed to be harassing a tribal's wife. A dealer in some village always adulterated his kerosene. Initially Agastya was impressed by the solidity and confidence in Srivastav's reactions; he seemed to know exactly what to do in each case.
A few visitors after, he changed his view and thought, marvelling at the sideburns, that Srivastav ought to be confident because he had been dealing with such matters for years.
The petitioners partially explained the crowds outside the Collectorate. But there were others too, subordinate officers from various offices, who were summoned or came to report, and didn't sit until asked to.
And then there were the gossips of the district, who were the most gluttonous about time, but whom Srivastav could not alienate, because they knew the pulse of Madna, and were also the politicians' groupies.
Sycophants to the last, they wheedled like caricatures. Still others brought invitations, they would be honoured if the Collector and Mrs.
Collector and later in the year some included Agastya, Sen saab, IAS, an afterthought in ink graced with their presence the Sports Day of their school or the function to celebrate the eightieth birthday of some veteran freedom fighter of the district, who had perhaps had the overwhelming good fortune to have been jailed once with Gandhi. Only a very few visitors breezed in before their names could precede them on slips of paper the Member of Parliament from Madna, and two red-eyed Members of the Legislative Assembly.
Agastya enjoyed his long speculative categorization, and placed at the apex the very select few for whom Srivastav moved forward in his chair to shake hands and to whom he offered tea there were only two that day, the MP and the Managing Director of the paper mills somewhere in the district. On the wall behind him hung a big teak board with the names of the District Magistrates of Madna since The earlier Collectors had been British, one Avery had been Collector for six years, He felt hungry and to dispel the pangs, thought of the horrors Vasant would feed him at lunch.
At twelve forty-five the Collector told the peon, Ill meet the others when I return. Get the driver. Outside in the corridor the peons, the petitioners, the politicians' groupies and their groupies all stiffened and shut their babble when they saw Srivastav.
They looked solemn and guilty, as though they'd been planning to strip him, thought Agastya. The heat was terrible. The car began a slow furrow through the mass on the road. This car has an emergency siren apart from the light. I've always wanted to use both together just to get to my office. They passed the wild cannabis and the pond. Children jumped from one buffalo to another.
When it rains the cattle camp in the corridors of the Collectorate. The same thing used to happen in Azamganj, where I come from. Earlier I used to think that a Collectorate with cows and stray dogs in its corridors could only be found in Azamganj, now I think it's a common story. A man poked his head in through the front window to gaze blankly at them.
The driver snarled at him. You're from a city. This place will initially seem very different. Then you'll get used to it. Someone thumped the back of the car in affection and boredom. Srivastav watched Agastya sweat. If you think it's hot you should be here in May. The old residents say that on some afternoons in May, even birds have dropped from the sky, dead.
The car turned reckless as it left the field of offices. And this Integration meeting? Oh, there was a big riot here a few months ago, HinduMuslim.
It surprised everyone because Madna has never been communally sensitive. The last Collector, Antony, was transferred, I think, because of the riots. They said he'd bungled there, but more likely the politicians who were actually behind the riots just wanted a scapegoat.
These politician bastards, you'll really know what they are like when you're Block Development Officer. So we formed an Integration Committee, it meets once a month. Both Hindu and Muslim goondas get together and eat and waste time. Have as little of the food as possible, it'll be poisonous.
The brown curtains of the car couldn't keep out the town. Narrow streets and two-storeyed shacks, people and animals immune to the heat. Srivastav perhaps sensed Agastya's mood and said, The population of the town is only two lakhs. Sometimes I think the development of Madna must be a representative Indian story.
Once it was just another district, very rich forests, and made to feel proud of its tribal traditions, which is another way of trying to make you forget your economic backwardness. He masturbates. He does what he has to do at his job, but that really isn't all that much. He goes through the motions -- travelling, dealing with officials and visitors -- but most of what he does still seems to baffle him. Agastya is still a youth, trying to find meaning and direction.
There are moments of discovery: Agastya begins to have some sense of what is important and what is of interest to him. There are no absolutes, no certainties, but perhaps an outline that grows more distinct. So, for example: Eventually, he knew, he would marry, perhaps not out of passion, but out of convention, which was probably a safer thing. And then, in either case, in a few months or years they would tire of disagreeing with each other, or what was more or less the same thing, would be inured to each other's odd and perhaps disgusting ways, the way she squeezed the tube of toothpaste and the way he drank from a glass and didn't rinse it, and they would slide into a placid and comfortable unhappiness, and maybe unseeingly watch TV every day, each still a cocoon Agastya is restless, and he does consider escape from Madna and a career in the IAS.
He flees, briefly, back to the big city, and considers taking a job in publishing. But he does return to stick it out in Madna. There Agastya finds: "Reading was impossible, with his mind in its state of quiet tumult. There are numerous smaller and larger episodes and encounters: the bizarre demands and mal functions of bureaucracy, the people one has to deal with.
There are women, friends, family -- especially his prominent father. Agastya is basically still drifting, unwilling -- and unable -- to commit himself fully to anything. Chatterjee presents this very sympathetically; the Weltschmerz is not annoying, and Agastya fortunately does not take himself too seriously.
The book is a satire, the humour veering from the blunt and crude to the delicate. Still, little of the comedy comes across as too forced -- and much of it is very funny indeed.
Much of the humour is almost as if incidental, the obvious consequence of the absurdities all around. Chatterjee also has a fairly deft touch, mixing the absurd with the poignant, the slapstick with the clever.