Up in Smoke
SOURCE: The New York Times, July 2, 2006
by Upamanyu Chatterjee.
New York Review Books,
A specter haunts Indian writing — the specter of authenticity. In the pages of magazines and journals, at soirées and (sparsely attended) book parties in New Delhi, literature is being judged by a specious metric of cultural and national loyalty. According to this standard, it is in the work of writers who live in India and write in an Indian language (and thus have trouble finding a Western publisher), and not, to quote one critic, in sell-out “export-quality prose,” that the country’s authentic voice is to be found.
Upamanyu Chatterjee’s “English, August,” was first published in India in 1988. The story of a young civil servant posted to a fictional rural town, it was hailed as the country’s “Catcher in the Rye” — a novel that captured the zeitgeist of the 1980’s, when India was uncertainly emerging from decades of economic isolation and ill-conceived socialism. Now, nearly two decades later, “English, August” is at last being published in America. The long wait, and the fact that, although Chatterjee writes in English, he still works and lives in India, confer a certain legitimacy upon his book. In a market dominated by cosmopolitan authors and fusion prose, “English, August” is being presented, in the words of one admirer, as “the ‘Indianest’ novel in English that I know of.”
Chatterjee richly deserves this accolade. His book displays a world rarely seen in modern Indian writing, revealing a detailed knowledge of the heartland that can result only from personal experience. As a member of the Indian civil service, Chatterjee has traveled and worked throughout India, and his novel is crowded — at times overcrowded — with the sorts of characters and scenes from rural life that couldn’t have been written by an author living in New York or London. Some of his descriptions are reminiscent of the late R. K. Narayan, whose fiction took place in the invented rural town of Malgudi. (“Without him,” Graham Greene once remarked, “I could never have known what it is like to be Indian.”)
Yet “English, August” wears the crown of authenticity uneasily — partly because the book is so charmingly unassuming, so natural and assured, that it would be uncomfortable with any crown at all. In his introduction to this edition, Akhil Sharma, himself the author of an accomplished novel about an Indian civil servant, characterizes the book as both a “coming-of-age story” and “a slacker novel.” Indeed, what’s striking — and wonderful — about Chatterjee’s protagonist, Agastya Sen, is his aimlessness, his refusal to be pinned down to any particular opinion or grand idea. “There wasn’t a single thought in his head,” Chatterjee writes, “about which he didn’t feel confused.”
This confusion no doubt has something to do with the copious quantities of marijuana and alcohol Agastya consumes, but it also signals a welcome lack of self-importance. Despite the book’s subtitle — and in contrast to the grandiosity of much modern Indian writing — Chatterjee shows a distinct lack of interest in writing a Grand Indian Novel. India is merely a backdrop for the more intimate story of a young man’s fumbling attempts to find himself and his place in the world.
Agastya’s confusion is superficially about his career: having followed his father into government service, he toys repeatedly with the idea of seeking other work. But his real problem stems from uncertainty about his identity in a rapidly changing nation. Chatterjee’s central character has a satisfyingly complicated — even irreverent — take on the concept of Indianness.
Ending up in the remote town of Madna, Agastya (who has spent most of his life in New Delhi and Calcutta) quickly learns how foreign he is to the Indian heartland. Like a tourist, he boils his water; he’s terrified of the frogs and mosquitoes; he struggles with the local language. Modern and secular, he hasn’t much respect for tradition or religion. (At a temple, he and a friend share a picnic of “beer and beef and marijuana.”) Even the novel’s title hints at Agastya’s ambiguous identity: named after a mythological saint, he is nonetheless so westernized that people have taken to calling him August, or just plain English.
Like so much modern Indian writing, then, “English, August” is concerned with cultural alienation and dislocation. Chatterjee writes beautifully about this condition — “Now all he wanted, or thought he wanted, was one place, any one place, with no consciousness in his mind of the existence of any other” — but he can also write hilariously about it, avoiding the sentimentality and maudlin nostalgia that cloud so much expatriate writing.
Indeed, Chatterjee’s prose is cynical, witty and frequently bawdy; it brilliantly captures a generation and a nation struggling to reorient themselves in the early days of what we now call globalization. “They’re turning modern without warning, these bastards,” a friend of Agastya’s exclaims while struggling to open a cylinder of cooking gas that has a new kind of seal. One character strolls around with a Walkman, and likes to call rupees “bucks” and himself Mandy. “He’s the sort who’d love to get AIDS just because it’s raging in America,” is another character’s withering verdict.
There’s something quaint about such descriptions, reminders of a time when a Walkman was still a totem of modernity and AIDS was an American problem (rather than, say, a rural Indian one). “English, August” is filled with cultural references — Maruti cars, Nirodh condoms, Campa Colas — that are from another era, as are many of India’s insecurities and uncertainties about the West. Today’s India is very different from the nation Chatterjee captures here: more modern, more globalized, more self-confident. Yet “English, August” has worn remarkably well. Agastya’s story is convincing, entertaining, moving — and timeless. It merits an accolade that’s far harder to earn than “authentic.” It’s a classic.