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Upamanyu Chatterjee: English, August

There are two basic themes to this novel. The first concerns a relatively sophisticated American-educated Indian civil servant stuck in the provinces for a year as part of his training and how he copes. The second, related, theme is about many Indians, including, of course, our hero have become more Western than Indian.

Agastya Sen, a Bengali (his father is Governor of Bengal), known to his family and friends as Ogi or August, has recently completed his exams, giving him admission to the Indian Administrative Service (IAS). He is now assigned to the remote town of Madna to do his initial training. Apart from vague socialising – he meets an old college friend, amongst others – his main activities are smoking marijuana (and getting it), masturbating, thinking about literature and avoiding mosquitoes. In short, he is just waiting his time out till he has done his year and he can return to civilisation.

Of course, as a sophisticated Westerner he thinks he is somewhat above these poor people. However, even he can be out-sophisticated. He tells a fellow Indian, who has been to the University of Cambridge, that he went to university in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Oh, the Cambridge graduate retorts, they have a university there?. But, as the whole novel is pretty well told tongue in cheek and as he observes everything – the locals, his fellow servants, the bureaucratic procedures, even his own masturbation – with a certain wry detachment, this makes for a very enjoyable if not very deep novel. Of course, he gets a heart at the end and does help the locals, but you knew that, didn’t you?

Publishing history

First published in English 1988 by Faber and Faber