English, August

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.”

30 thoughts on “English, August

  1. A classic.

    Ranks with Nabokov’s Pnin as the funniest novel I’ve ever read (though their humor couldn’t be more different). I laughed so hard it hurt. It’s been a few years; I think I’ll go read it again.

    I’m so sorry I missed Chatterjee when he was in town.

    (p.s. I’m happy to see you and Amardeep are rolling with the Mutinous Crew…)

  2. Picked it up when I was in India in 2000, but haven’t made the time to read it yet, though it sits faithfully on my bookshelf. Thanks for the post, will immediately move it up to the top of my ‘books to read’ list.

  3. Yeah, it’s hazaar good. The movie isn’t bad either, though it lacks the sparkle (and raunchiness) of the novel.

    Thanks for mentioning that you can actually get the book in the U.S. Now I can assign it to my classes!

    Incidentally, did anyone see Upamanyu Chatterjee at the PEN World writers festival that was just happening in New York?

  4. I just finished reading this 2 months ago. It’s one of my favorite books, it’s very funny.

  5. Yes!

    thank you siddartha for showing us something other than She Who Shall Not Be Named (by me at least, other people feel free to keep bashing her for what was a terrible book copied from other slightly less terrible books)

    and what a great choice too. Chatterjee is a very talented writer and i’m so glad you pointed out the realistic portrayal of India, which makes all the difference to desis who like reading desi writers.

    If we want a romanticised Bollywood we’ve got a zillion movies, when someone wants to see the real India its so nice to turn to authors like this one.

    so nice to have a safe haven for haters of shit-lit! along with neha’s last post on writers I now feel like the lit corner of this blog is the equivalent of a library with lovely comfy armchairs and lots of real books, not a glorified cinema with movie scripts bound together,rehashed and trashed.

  6. English, August brings back some good memories. Read it in the early nineties and some of imagery have still stayed with me all these years!!!! The one with the Gandhi statute………priceless!!!! Those of you who have not read it, I recommend it highly.

  7. So I trust what you have to say, Siddhartha and will read it again. The first time I read it, someone gave it to me saying “You’ll love it.” I was about 12 and totally confused by the book and it’s been sitting ignored on my bookshelf since.

    Yay! Summer reading!

  8. totally unrelated but…

    does anyone know the person who posts as ‘Kiwi’. Theres only a few people around here, I wanna hunt em down. I thought I was the only Kiwi on this site…what a thunder-stealer! sigh

  9. aah…the 90′s in delhi…thats where i was when i first read the book…and saw the movie(at priya in vasant vihar)….

    definitely worth a read…..

    p.s:-just as a side note,one of the major influence of the movie in our hostels was teaching the guys a new ‘technique’….worshipping st peter while smoking!!anyone remeber that?

    aiight….apologize for the goofy interlude,back to serious discussion!

  10. Oh, leave her alone! Hasn’t the poor girl suffered enough? You’ve made your point. Now move on.

    Whoops! Wrong author. Sorry..

  11. The movie isn’t bad either, though it lacks the sparkle (and raunchiness) of the novel.

    The book is raunchier than Rahul Bose manipulating his porcelain peacock on screen?

  12. Great to see a review of English August. I don’t think any other book of that time is as good. More importantly, it wasn’t written for a phoren audience but Indians who had grown up in an English speaking city milieu disjunct from the real India (whatever that is). It also captures perfectly the late 80s/90s generation in India (though I would like to think not all of were as passive as August!). Pity U.C. never wrote anything half as good after. Maybe like August, he should have quit the IAS.

  13. I’m really looking to buy a dvd of the movie. anyone know where I can get one?

  14. As for the DVD of the movie…someone asked him about it at the book reading in Boston and he said, yes, he was aware that it was not available at any outlet…maybe he’ll go back and do something about it…

  15. For most of us who were in School back in the 1990s, this novel was the desi equivalent of cather in the rye.

  16. I like that Chatterjee says “…English, August is anything but romantic.” Too true! It’s definitely head and shoulders above a lot of the Indian lit that’s coming out these days [and I'm not even talking about Opal Mehta]. The movie was one of the worst things I’ve seen, though. Could be also because I’m biased against movies about books and Rahul Bose. Putting the two together only spells disaster…

  17. I attended the reading and book signing at the Olssons in DC. Listening to the man matter-of-factly reading aloud about Agastya jerking off and getting high was surreal. I am almost ashamed to say I saw the movie first. But the book is amonng my favorites. And now I have a signed copy :) BTW – the movie by Dev Benegal is also among the funniest Indian movies I have seen. And I have seen a lot of them!

  18. hey ananda, i was at the book reading in cambridge too. i loved the way he responded to the usual audience questions on the layered epistemology,the cult of alienation and

    i was silently rolling on the floor during the exchange between the guy who asked him a question on the how U.C had once commented in an interview that he(u.c) found milan kundera a czech supremacist, and how he (the guy asking the question) recounted this to his czech friend, who then read English august, and declared Upmanyu to be a reverse supremacist(!!)-because he was always putting down indians, and he (the questioner) asked him (u.c) to comment on that.

    ..and u.c’s comment was “you should change your friends”..

    priceless. btw, ananda, if the questioner was you, sorry!

  19. OMG – this is possibly my favorite book ever. I feel so nostalgic – a bowl of pot, a mofussil town in the heartland, some whiskey – does one need anything else in life.

    Can’t wait till Dev Benegal’s wonderful film is released here.

  20. I feel so nostalgic – a bowl of pot, a mofussil town in the heartland, some whiskey – does one need anything else in life.

    hari, you also just used one of my favorite words!

  21. thanks for the link to the chatterjee interview. very entertaining. especially liked it when he said the movie was good but not as good as the book and that when it comes to writers on book tours he’s a martyr, secretly liking it. matter-of-fact and to the point combined with a little humble hesitancy – very charming.

  22. my fave from the book/movie was

    Local biggie: “so are you into physical activities agastya?”

    AS: “Yes – I climbed the mount everest”

    Local biggie: “Oh good! Then you can join our badminton club”

  23. I first read this book when I spent a year living in ramshackle housing (similar to Agastya’s) in a hole of a suburb called Vikhroli in Mumbai. Instant connect & identification followed. The book has been on top of my fav’s list for over 5 years now. Rahul Bose’s portrayal as the urban-western-Indian youth Agastya only enhanced the connect. I’ll be eternally grateful to August as I discovered both Marcus Aurelius & a whole new interpretation of the Gita through his perception. “The mind is restless Krishna….” haunting words those…

  24. this is too coincidental… we were just talking about this book over dinner tonight..and my friends who had read it ages ago, were raving about it… can’t wait to read it after my boards…all fun reading will await until that hell is over…and before i forget, welcome to the SM croony corner :)

  25. Ah well I remember those good old days…newly minted and oh-so-cute-so-we-forgave-him-a-lot (oh come on, we TOO were just 17!) new English Prof Upamanyu Chatt teaching us Dickens back in ’82. He’d sit down at his chair with this faintly bored abstracted air (one that never left him right through class), set “David Copperfield” down on the table and then (we all — half-exasperated, half amused — knew this would be the next step after he took ‘attendanc’ ) THERE…his round cheek would be pressed upwards as he rested his face on his hand, elbow on table and began to read out assorted passages from the book… It was only later we learned UC only took on his ‘teaching’ job while studying for his civil services…that explained a lot :) !

  26. Back at the parents’ house. The last thing I did before I went to bed last night was rummage through my old bookshelf looking for English, August. There it was, nestled between a copy of The Restraunt at the End of the Universe and um, Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret. I read about three pages before I passed out from exhaustion – I must have completely missed all the pot references the first time ’round. I guess I just wasn’t ready to appreciate the beauty of hotboxing in a car in Dealhi at the age of twelve. I’m going laze around revelling in my end of semester bliss and read this novel today.