English, August comes to you with the aura of something exotic, mystic, refined and mysterious, as the title attempts to make us anticipate. But it turns out to be just none of these. The title turns out to be as vague and ambiguous as the mind of the man whose different names are what the title constitutes.
The novel is a candid presentation of the mind’s battle with ennui and disinterest amid an acute sense of mental and physical dislocation. It is the twenty-four year-old Agastya’s (or English, or August) search for self-definition. It documents his quotidian routine of deathly boredom in which he searches for familiarity and a sense of rooted ness and continuity in his need for sex and marijuana, and his half-hearted attempts at maintaining a diary.
His boredom leads him to a state of suspension of body and mind – dislocation from everything around; crumbling of his resolutions: avoiding Vasant’s hazardous meals, but eventually getting used to it; a staunch declaration of abstinence from masturbation but eventually accommodating it in a mechanical and disinterested way as part of his routine. In his stagnating life in a remote and obscure part of India, called Madna, Agastya fights frantically to create some semblance of mobility through his dogged regimen of exercise which is the only ‘motion’/’activity’/’growth’ in his life.
The story is set at the juncture of the early 1980s, when the Indian social and intellectual ideology was poised at the brink of modernization with increasing influences of the Occult; where the acceptance of Americanisation was contentious among the varied sections of the urban Indian society, as exemplified through the characters of Agastya, Dhrubo, Bhatia, Renu, Neera. It was also the point where the Indian youth had begun to experiment in their sense of career direction and were ready to move out of conventional lines; yet not completely strong enough in their convictions as they continued to remain in the rut of the tested and tried – as realized by Agastya and Dhrubo by the end of the book.
Upamanyu Chatterji’s maiden novel of fiction is a stark representation of the stagnant nature of the Indian bureaucracy – taking a leaf out of his own stint at the Indian Administrative Service. While every generation is fraught with their own conflicts, Agastya’s began from the moment of his birth and christening. His own name, with its different variations, is an indication of his multiple personalities he deftly employs to suit the changing scenarios. This ambiguity is reflected from his background which is an amalgamation of cultures (which is also the cause of confusion for Agastya) – belonging to a Bengali Hindu father and Goan Christian mother. His confusion lies in his propensity to adhere to tradition as well as seek refuge in westernization as a mode of rebellion. This fusion is evident even in the way Agastya and Dhrubo use their language: “hazaar-fucked”, says Dhrubo on the opening page, as Agastya wonders at the panache of Indians to combine words and cultures – Urdu and American here. This inextricable enmeshing of cultures pervades the very sensibilities of Agastya who finds himself indelibly intertwined in the tangles of tradition and the modern: as the two sources who guide him through his tribulations are the Gita and Marcus Aurelius.
The discord between the urban and the rural is one of the major themes in the novel and the urban Agastya becomes the victim who finds himself anachronistically compelled to live in conditions utterly alien to him.
Madna is therefore a litmus test of patience for Agastya where he learns to deal with boredom and loneliness. The frog in his bathroom presents a somber parallel to Agastya’s life, being another lonely soul; stuck in the same place with lack of mobility and bleak possibility of escape. Everybody in Madna is hence, an island on their own.
The novel is riotously hilarious and offers a veneer of comedy through the mesh of Agastya’s befuddlement; but on close inspection we apprehend the earnestness of questions that cloud the young protagonist’s mind, thereby representing the larger questions arising in an entire generation of contemporary young Indians. The nature of humour in the novel is provided by Agastya – almost all of it emanating from his internal monologues and tacit unspoken retorts to almost everyone around him.
While Agastya may or may not have been able to record the anguish of his days as apprentice at the most esteemed job in the country in his diary, the novel does succeed in establishing the bildungsroman of Agastya. The entire length of the novel presents the dissension between his heart and mind which invariably pulls him in different directions leaving him to tussle with his fate that he himself had asked for. The novel shows him going round in circles, where at one moment he appears to be exhausted with his status quo and he raises expectations of taking the initiative to change it; yet soon enough loses momentum and succumbs. It is only with the relinquishing of his job in the end, that his final act of self-assertion takes place. Agastya’s act of renouncing the most prestigious job in the country, as well as his father’s legacy, is not just a colossal step in his life; but also ushers in the era of modern Indian youth finally crossing the barriers of the perpetuation of conservatism and imposed expectations. It is a coming of age for Agastya as he helps himself break free of his constraining position all by himself and with little help from those around him like Tonic, Pultukaku, Sathe, who set themselves as precedents.
The novel’s end is disencumbering not only for Agastya, but equally momentous for his close friend Neera too. Her losing her virginity, comes not only as a sense of relief for her, but also echoes the shedding of unvalued conventions a la Agastya. If Agastya and Neera felt disposed to embark upon uncharted territory, Agastya’s closest friend Dhrubo chose to resort to convention by giving up the newfangled life he had grown to excoriate. Agastya’s character evolves through the novel as by the end he is able to sift and sort out his priorities. His observations and metaphors throughout the novel are tinged with sexual and scatological perversity; yet I do not condemn him or attribute vulgarity toward his deeds because I perceive him as a prisoner of his circumstances. He does not unequivocally reject or rebel, but gives himself time to accommodate and adjust; thereby delineating his growth as an individual. He is essentially honourable in his thoughts and is on the lookout for a suitable outlet to translate them into noble deeds.