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English, August: An Indian Story (New York Review Books Classics) Paperback – April 4, 2006

4.5 out of 5 stars 33 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Chatterjee's slacker bildungsroman, first published in India in 1988 and set during that decade, tells of a privileged young man's year of living languorously. Agastya Sen, nicknamed "August" for his Anglophile tendencies, is the urbane, aimless son of a respected government official. After college he enters the elite Indian Administrative Service and is posted to the remote provincial village of Madna. Without conviction or ambition, "interested in nothing," he only wants to "crush the restlessness in his mind." Brutal heat, tedium, insomnia and the absurdities of his job—compounded by a daily regimen of marijuana—only add fuel to his dissolution. Between feeble attempts at learning the ins and outs of district administration from his appointed mentor, Srivastav, a hilarious popinjay, Agastya reduces his routine to a joyless cycle of pot smoking, masturbation and nocturnal distance running. This study in lassitude rambles on at a pace that reflects the rhythms of the insouciant main character's life, but Chatterjee (The Last Burden), himself an IAS officer, creates a comic, entertaining portrayal of an administrator's life in the sticks. (Apr.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From The New Yorker

A best-seller when it was first published, in India in 1988, this satiric novel chronicles the reluctant coming of age of a privileged young man who has just entered the prestigious Indian Administrative Service. Posted to a small town deep in the interior, he finds himself a foreigner in his own country, wary of cholera, defenseless against mosquitoes, and shocked by the sight of a tribal woman: "They exist, he shrieked silently, outside arty films about tribal exploitation and agrarian reform." In revolt, he sneaks out of meetings, pretends to be the son of Antarctic explorers, and smokes copious amounts of pot. He's an avatar of the Western slacker: overeducated, bored, plagued with doubts, and incapable of action. Still, Chatterjee's story is uniquely Indian, as he plumbs his hero's fear of being "just one more urban Indian bewitched by America's hard sell in the Third World."
Copyright © 2006 The New Yorker
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Product Details

  • Series: New York Review Books Classics
  • Paperback: 326 pages
  • Publisher: NYRB Classics; 2nd edition (April 4, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1590171799
  • ISBN-13: 978-1590171790
  • Product Dimensions: 5 x 0.9 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (33 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #497,242 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

By Steve Koss VINE VOICE on July 31, 2006
Format: Paperback
Imagine combining Salinger's THE CATCHER IN THE RYE with Roth's PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT and Kevin Smith's CLERKS and setting the whole story in rural India, using for a protagonist a college-educated, citified, pot-smoking, Marcus Aurelius reading, half-Bengali, half-Christian slacker whose friends have Anglicized his Bengali name, Agastya, into August. All this and more are accomplished in Upamanyu Chatterjee's hilarious 1988 novel ENGLISH, AUGUST. Whether you view it as a coming of age story or a slacker novel, this book is a comic masterpiece, THE GRADUATE in India without a Mrs. Robinson.

Chatterjee's story centers around a recent college graduate named Agastaya Sen. Known to his friends as August and to his family as Ogu, Agastaya lives the dissolute, carefree life of the privileged in Delhi, his father being the Governor of Bengal. Unfortunately, his mother, a Catholic from Goa, died from meningitis when Agastaya was just three years old, so he was raised largely by aunts. He passes seemingly effortlessly through college, acquiring a hybrid Western/Indian lifestyle that includes ample quantities of alcohol and marijuana. His major goal in life is simply to be happy, to live contentedly and not be bothered, and certainly not to fall into the rut of commuting to an office, working, commuting home, and then rising the next day to do it all again until he dies.

Having successfully achieved a high score on the national examinations for government service, however, August consents to a position in the Indian Administrative Service and a posting to a distant country town named Madna. Once there, he begins a training period and proves himself to be a heroic shirker of work, an incorrigible pot smoker, a compulsive freeloader, and an almost pathological liar.
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Format: Hardcover
No one has captured the widening chasm between urban and rural India as brilliantly as this. An average Indian growing up in an Indian megapolis like a Bombay or a Bangalore will tell you that he feels more at home in New York or London than in a place like Madna like rural India. A host of Indian authors like Rushdie and Naipaul write books for the westen audience, but this one is written for the Indian one - in a satirical style, totally against the current trend of Indian authors who write in a moving, spiritual and philosophical way. While I find Naipaul eternally pessimistic and defeatist and Rushdie amazingly reminiscing, Chatterjee is a realist. Agastya Sen, the main character (called August), is the average Indian you meet in your everyday life. He basically cares about India and genuinely wants to make a difference, but knows that it is not his cup of tea and so accepts the reality and tries to live through it by looking at the whole experience through the prism of satire. Truly, if there is an Indian author who deserves accolades as much as Rushdie, Naipaul or the grossly over-rated Arundhati Roy, it definitely is Chatterjee. I have also read the sequel to English, August - Mammaries of a Welfare State. It is as good if not better than English, August but I had to order the books through rediff since I couldn't find them anywhere in the USA.
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"English, August" is a very funny novel about one Agastya Sen, a privileged, depressed, Delhi-educated young man newly recruited into the Indian Administrative Service (India's elite civil service). Sen is adrift in life. Deployed to a rural town for training, he dodges work, smokes pot, and reads Marcus Aurelius. He frets about his future. He worries about drinking unboiled water. He tells outrageous lies about himself to his bosses and colleagues. He's underground.

The author wrote "English, August" a few years after he joined the IAS, so he must have known what he was writing about. I've asked a few IAS officers whether they liked his book. They didn't. Well, I loved it. I first read it in 1999, not long after taking up a diplomatic post in Chennai. I was blown away by the laugh-out-loud satire of Indian bureaucracy and small-town life. I loved the perfect descriptions of the sights, sounds and smells of India. I owed the book a lot: it helped me organize my reactions to India and its officials. I even recommended it to other American foreign service officers who could relate to the stories of cultural dislocation and bureaucratic inanity.

I've now read "English, August" a second time. Once again I laughed out loud at the tales of job-shirking, pot-smoking, and solitary sex. But this time, not needing to use the book as a guide to India, I was more touched by the story of Sen's alienation and loneliness, of his struggle to make sense of life. Any thinking person who was horrified by his first "real" job after college will identify with the story. It may be set in India but the themes are universal.

I'm sure I'll read the book again in 10 years. I'm looking forward to finding out how it speaks to me then. Six stars.
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I assume anyone who reads this book should be familiar with the fact that sex plays a big part in Indian culture, as portrayed in so many ways with their gods, their daily language usually contains some type of sexual inenuendos, so you should not be too surprised at this book. Actually it is more poignant than most books I have read. The story revolves around one well to do man who is trying to find his way in life, and takes the usual advise from his uncle, with whom he lives part time in Delhi, and his father who lives in Calcutta, because he seems to have no ambition to apply himself to finding a job after his studies have been completed, and spends his days hanging out with two friends who are working, and being somewhat successful, and smoking marijuana and getting high. In order to placate this uncle and father he takes the Indian civil service test, and to his surprise passes it and is offered a job in a remote area where amenities are almost nil. Obviously he goes into a culture shock for a while until he meets a few people who are also spending their time in the service basically the same way he is. He finds solace also in masturbating and exercising. He is ready to quit the service as soon as his probation period is over since he is extremely unhappy, even though he goes to work only for a few hours in the morning, and then skips off to do his own thing for the rest of the day, which includes the activities mentioned earlier.Read more ›
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