First published in 1988, at the dawn of the desi-lit craze, Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English, August, has been a secret touchstone for later desi authors and for readers fortunate enough to get their hands on a copy. This April, it was finally released in the U.S., by New York Review Books, in a handsome paperback edition with an introduction by Akhil Sharma. Not only has it not aged a bit, but it far outshines many recent works in its wry, thoughtful, and dare I say authentic portrayal of major aspects of Indian life.
The book is the story of Agastya Sen, a newly minted member of the Indian Administrative Service who receives his first posting, per IAS practice, in the deep boonies — in a fictional town called Madna, which is vaguely set in central India and is known for record temperatures and nothing else. Agastya, who was at loose ends to begin with, is now at even looser ends; he improvises his way through the torpor, and by the end we too have been to Madna, eaten the cook’s disgusting preparations, amused ourselves spinning outrageous tall tales to local dignitaries, shirked on all of our work obligations, and spent endless hours lying on the bed staring at the ceiling fan, watching for lizards.
Chatterjee went on to write several other books, none of them quite at this level; English, August is one of those perfect pieces that result from some fortunate blend of authorial talent, mood, and just plain serendipity. Chatterjee is an IAS officer himself, and stayed in the service rather than become a Famous Writer. Now he’s been in the odd position of coming to the U.S. for a book tour to promote a work he penned two decades back.
Last Friday Chatterjee was on the Leonard Lopate show on WNYC public radio; you can listen and download here. Asked to respond to Suketu Mehta’s comment that English, August is “the ‘Indianest’ novel in English that I know of,” Chatterjee replies: “It speaks of a world that we — we Indians — are all familiar with, but at the same time it’s a world that hasn’t been reflected in fiction. India tends to be romanticized, and English, August is anything but romantic.”