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ENGLISH, AUGUST by Upamanyu Chatterjee Kirkus Star

ENGLISH, AUGUST

An Indian Story

By Upamanyu Chatterjee

Pub Date: April 26th, 2006
ISBN: 1-59017-179-9
Publisher: New York Review Books

A slacker seeks career success and sexual fulfillment in Chatterjee’s 1988 first novel, since proclaimed a contemporary Indian classic.

It’s set in 1983, when educated underachiever Agastya Sen (nicknamed “August,” and also English—for his avid Anglophilia) forsakes New Delhi to train as a District Collector (roughly, what a County Manager might be in America) in the overpopulated, underprivileged village of Madna. Everyone important to him is elsewhere: his girlfriend of sorts off to study in America, his mother deceased, his father absorbed in a high administrative post in Bengal, his pot-smoking best pal Dhrubo reachable only through letters in which Agastya itemizes his many frustrations. Madna, reputedly the hottest place in India, is a sinkhole of maladministration, adorned by the garish statue of Mahatma Gandhi that presides over its indigence, “run” by such non-notables as a police chief distracted by, and addicted, to pornography, and populated in part by coworkers for whom Agastya contrives a fictitious personal history complete with adoring wife and distinguished family. The duties of a District Collector are multitudinous and degrading, as evidenced by a painfully hilarious sequence in which Agastya is unwisely entrusted with devising a working water supply to replace a dried-up well. It’s an image of his own loneliness, depression, sexual tensions (relieved by compulsive masturbation) and avid consumption of pot (he gets through most days contentedly stoned). There’s a brief escape back to New Delhi, but the pursuit of a career in publishing is derailed by the manic incompetence of Agastya’s flamboyant second cousin Tonic. This beautifully written book strikes a nifty balance among satiric comedy, pointed social commentary and penetrating characterization. Widely considered India’s Catcher in the Rye, it also echoes both R.K. Narayan’s Malgudi novels and J.P. Donleavy’s classic portrayal of rampant, unrepentant maleness, The Ginger Man.

Excellent stuff. Let’s have Chatterjee’s other novels, please.