English, August by Upamanyu Chatterjee


Have you ever read an Indian coming-of-age novel? I hadn’t, and I was interested what it’s like. And of course – The Catcher in the Rye is mentioned on the cover, which always makes me curious.

From this novel it becomes clear that growing up is just as difficult in India as in any other part of the world – at least for those who have the means to spend their time moaning about teenage- and young adult problems and doing serious soul-searching. (By the way, the protagonist here is well aware how lucky he is to be able to afford this, but this awareness only serves to deepen his misery – I’ll get back to this later.)

The protagonist of the novel, Agastya (for his anglicized friends and his anglicized self just August) is not exactly a teen: he’s 24 at the beginning of the story, and he’s just getting ready to start his year of training at the Indian Administrative Service. Literally millions of ambitious or lazy young Indians apply for a job at the I.A.S. because after the training, a permanent appointment is almost automatic, the job offers a comfortable (if somewhat boring) living, and it doesn’t involve a whole lot of actual work.

For Agastya, a youth accustomed to the Indian mega-cities, and to the world of English universities, it comes as a veritable (cultural) shock that he’s appointed to spend his year of training somewhere on no man’s land, in a town called Madna, where there’s no life, no entertainment, no taste, no fun. What’s more, Agastya isn’t an overly enthusiastic and motivated employee, so he spends most of his time smoking weed, masturbating, telling lies for fun, getting his acquaintances invite him for dinner, making up excuses for skipping yet another afternoon at work, and reading Marcus Aurelius.

For Agastya, the days and the people of Madna all become blurred – and for me, too, reading this novel. I don’t know if it’s because of the unfamiliar names but I only managed to remember the name and role of about five characters out of the dozens, and whenever someone appeared (again?), I panicked because I had no idea who that character was. I like to think this is the exact effect the author wanted to achieve – after all, Agastya is just as clueless during his year in Madna, and experiences similar panic whenever he meets an acquaintance or a colleague because he doesn’t remember what he lied to different people about himself and his past, so he doesn’t know what role to play with different people.

And of course the story is not the main point in this novel. The main point is Agastya’s lazy soul-searching and how he’s figuring out what path he should take. Agastya’s main goal in life is to be happy, but he’s clueless about everything. That’s one thing that he doesn’t know how to reach happiness – but he has no idea what would make him happy, either. Consequently, he just floats here and there, he’s unsettled and insatiable – yet, interestingly enough, he’s not completely self-centered.

Even though he beats the protagonists of all Western coming-of-age novels taken together when it comes to doing nothing and pondering existentialist questions, Agastya is aware of his privileged position and immense luck, and he’s truly ashamed of himself when he visits a hospital for people with leprosy or a remote tribal village, and sees how people live there. And it’s interesting here – in his case, it’s not necessary to admonish Agastya, saying “you should count your blessings and quit whining, people in the third world are starving.”

Agastya sees perfectly well that people right next to him are starving, and he’s sensitive to the misery of others. Still, his feelings of angst, cynicism, helplessness and vague unhappiness don’t evaporate because of this.

Besides the usual existentialist questions, here there’s a separate battle with being Indian. Agastya, for example, is the son of a Christian mother from Goa and a Hindu father from the Bengal, he receives an anglicized education, and then moves to a part of India where he doesn’t speak the local language – it’s no wonder that he has no real idea who he is and where he’s at home. And the example of others doesn’t help much, either: some of his friends moved to the US, some moved to Indian mega-cities, there are some who married English people – the one thing that’s certain is that they don’t know what to do with themselves, and what it means for them to be Indian, in India and outside of it.

But this here is not the usual, moody, Western kind of (teenage-)existentialism, but the extremely ironic kind: Agastya is constantly making fun of the Westerners who come to India to find themselves, and he’s also constantly making fun of himself because trying to find himself in the Western way is exactly what he’s doing.

And by the way, Western teenage novels rarely contain such childish, bawdy but somehow very entertaining humor as this novel. Agastya is reminded of sex by everything, and he makes devastatingly cynical, disrespectful or vulgar internal comments about even the most sublime topics or conversations – I haven’t had such dirty fun reading a novel for a long time.

(By the way, the author himself works at the I.A.S., so he has a pretty good idea about how things go in and around the office. And it might just be possible that he wrote this novel on the sly, during the Monthly Revenue Meetings. I wouldn’t be surprised.)