English, August: An Indian Story

Upamanyu Chatterjee

Faber & Faber 1988
A book review by Danny Yee © 2005 http://dannyreviews.com/
Named after an obscure character from the Ramayana, Agastya is known as August or, as a result of his fondness for the language, as English. Having joined the Indian Administrative Service, he leaves his friends and the comforts of New Delhi for six months training in the central Indian town of Madna, reputed to be the hottest place in India. He survives by keeping his distance from his job, finding new friends, and spending a good deal of his time stoned.

There's a fascinating array of characters in English, August. In Madna there are bureaucrats and their wives, other professionals, a visiting Westerner; revealed through correspondence are aspects of August's New Delhi friends (Westernised urban youth) and Bengali family (some of them religiously orthodox). August has a razor-sharp eye, capable of penetrating vivisection of those around him — perhaps an implausible trait in someone so young. Chatterjee's characters make up a mosaic of several middle strata of Indian society, with glimpses of faults along language, class and culture lines and of divisions between generations and between rural and urban — but even the slenderest are individuals, not caricatures or types.

English, August presents an unflattering portrait of the Indian government in action. August's own approach punctuates apathy and dilatory attention to duty with episodes of activity, notably an effort to bring water to a deprived village which brings him into contact with violent Naxalites.

Chatterjee's writing is most notable, however, for its humour. English, August is irreverent, frank in both language and ideas, and very, very funny. It has some dark elements and maintains a certain seriousness, but the overall mood is light-hearted and individual episodes and pieces of dialogue are hilarious. Chatterjee has an unerring touch and perfect balance, maintaining continuous comic entertainment without ever descending into farce.

April 2005

External links:
- buy from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk
- review and links at the Complete Review
Related reviews:
- Upamanyu Chatterjee - The Last Burden
- more Indian literature
%T English, August
%S An Indian Story
%A Chatterjee, Upamanyu
%I Faber & Faber
%D 1988
%G ISBN 0571151019
%P 291pp