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Upamanyu Chatterjee: The Mammaries of the Welfare State

This book is a follow-up to English, August, telling the continuing story of Agastya Sen. However, while it is nominally a novel about Sen and others, it is, in fact, what can only be described as a satirical rampage against India, particularly, as the title tells us, against the state apparatus, the government, both administrative and political, and the welfare state in all its ramifications. We do follow the story of Sen. He briefly returns to the capital after his stay in Madna, described in English, August, where he is to work for the Housing Ministry. He is annoyed by this, as he had been on leave without pay (which seems to involve, despite its title, some pay). He is moved to Delhi, where his housing problems become the main issue. He is initially located in what is apparently an illegal flat. He goes to bed on his own. When he awakes, there are three other people in the room, two men and one woman. He later gets an eviction notice. He is told by his boss to ignore or appeal the eviction notice, thereby delaying the eviction but he solves his problem by sleeping half of the week at the flat of Daya, a woman he met on the bus on the way to Delhi, and the other half at the office. When this is found out, he is given a half-hearted reprimand and told to respond to it and it will be dropped. However, he gives a sarcastic response, which upsets his boss and he is immediately returned to Madna, as Collector, to deal with the plague epidemic there.

Once in Madna, he fades into the background somewhat, as Chatterjee spends his time satirising the political set-up there, though we do later see his struggles in the job. After a period he is, as Chatterjee says, booted out of the Collectorship and appointed Deputy Chairman of the Coastal Regions Manure Supply and Marketing Structures Authority, before having to deal with the Budget Organisation On Base Zero, with the witty acronym of BOOBZ. Daya seems to fade into and out of his life, as he receives various marriage proposals. Various women write to him, suggesting their daughters and one of his bosses even offers his own daughter. Finally, using a messenger, he sends Daya a proposal.

However, as I said, this book is a satirical rampage, with Sen frequently fading away to allow Chatterjee to viciously mock the Indian Ciivil service, the Indian government and anything related to it, including the Indians who have dealings with the government. From Chatterjee’s descriptions, the entire government is corrupt, with bribes the norm. Sen seems to be the sole exception. For example, when he is on leave without pay and goes to draw some salary to which he is entitled, the clerk refuses to give it to him without a bribe. He is no saint, however, as he smokes marijuana and, at least in Madna, his source is the police chief who gives him marijuana confiscated from drug dealers. But bribery is not the only issue. Virtually every civil servant seems to be on the make somehow or other, using official money for their own uses (including the hiring of prostitutes in at least one case), fiddling expenses, doing little or no work, running personal businesses from government offices, using government equipment and funds, spending their time doing their own activities during working hours, and generally doing little or nothing related to what they are paid to do. When they do work, it is to produce useless reports that are never read, send facetious memoirs that are ignored, create government bodies whose function seems to be merely to provide work and whose real task seems to be a mystery and, of course, to help friends and the powerful.

Government is seen as entirely malicious rather than beneficial to the people (in his eight years of service, he hadn’t been able to distinguish between the Police State and the Welfare State) and there are numerous examples of this. Time-wasting is endemic. Sen sends out a detailed memo to all his staff about re-using used envelopes and how to do it. There are a few very amusing examples, such as the senior civil servant who has a junior staff member shave his crotch or the entomologist who is in hospital, suspected of having pneumonic plague. When the doctor produces an X-ray to confirm this, the male entomologist is able to point out that the X-ray is of a woman. There is the list of the day’s tasks for one civil servant, which includes getting his bicycle repaired, trying to get his niece admitted to a certain school, use a junior staff member to do his shopping, contact another official to get his property tax fixed, get the junior staff member to cover his niece’s new school textbooks with brown paper and so on, none of the tasks being related to his job. There is the senior official who gets a Ph.D. by having his staff compile selections from other Ph.D. dissertations and then bribing the examiners by sending them off on one official junket after another. Finally, there seems to be one a solution to the ever increasing amount of paperwork. Every so often some official has one of his staff set fire to all the files so he does not have to deal with them.

Sen is not all bad. There is one place where he talks of the families that starved to death, the parents who sold their daughters to pay off their debts, the villagers who trudged four hours a day to ferry five litres of muddy water, the poor, who, tortured and beaten, lost their lives because of some incomprehensible caste offence, the godforsaken who were burnt and mutilated so that they could beg at the traffic intersections of the cities, though this is only to indicate those that are ignored by the state. But he seems to agree with one of his colleagues, who says I always leave things the way I found them. It is a sound principle of government. But, overall, this is just a litany, in satirical form, of all that is wrong with the Indian government and, with more than four hundred pages, it does drag out somewhat. Many of these faults can be found in any civil service in the world and while they may be worse in India than in some other countries, they are certainly not unique to India. At times, it is certainly funny but all too often – tedious, facetious memos, joke acronyms, gross incompetence, money wasted on the treatment of VIPs, useless pet projects and all the other tasks that all governments can waste money on, stupid regulations and the various extramural activities that the civil servants indulge in intra muros – you just want him to get on with the story. Which he doesn’t.

Publishing history

First published in English 2000 by Viking