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English, August at 30: Revisiting Agastya Sen and his kind

Thirty years after 'English, August', Upamanyu Chatterjee is back with a prequel that speaks to our fractured present

Rahul Bose (left) as Agastya Sen in the movie adaptation of ‘English, August’.
Rahul Bose (left) as Agastya Sen in the movie adaptation of ‘English, August’.

If Salman Rushdie’s iconic novel Midnight’s Children, published in 1981, is considered a watershed in the history of Indian writing in English, Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English, August, which appeared seven years later, remains its relatively unsung twin. While Rushdie’s “chutnification" of the English language caused a stir in the corridors of global academia, it was the unique mongrel idiom of Chatterjee’s 1988 classic that won the hearts of millions. Not only has it stayed in print for all these years, Penguin Random House, the novel’s publisher in India, is releasing a new 30th anniversary version this month.

Spoken by Agastya Sen, the eponymous protagonist (he is nicknamed English and August by his friends from boarding school for his fondness for the language and Anglo-Indians) and his generation of deracinated, Anglicized youth, Chatterjee’s dialogue is spattered with hybrid phrases, mixing the colonizers’ tongue with Hindi and Urdu words to create an unforgettable colloquial vocabulary. The first of which—“hazaar fucked"—appears in the opening scene, as Agastya and his friend Dhrubo get high, in the dead of the night, in their car on a deserted street in New Delhi. The phrase not only prophesies Agastya’s predicament during his year-long stint as a trainee IAS officer in a remote village called Madna, but also captures the spirit of Chatterjee’s India, the rural hinterland of casual anarchy and thoughtless violence he portrays so acutely.

Thirty years later, Chatterjee is back with a prequel to English, August, set in 1949, with Agastya’s father, Madhusudan Sen, as its protagonist. But the post-Partition India Chatterjee writes about is just as dire as it was during Agastya’s time, as it still is: Beef-eaters then, as now, get society’s temperature soaring, the death penalty is regarded as a tool of vendetta by even the highly educated, and communal tensions flare up due to petty cruelties, often perpetrated by the wealthy over the subservient classes as a daily ritual, unthinking of the repercussions.

Running a little over 100 pages and set in a surprisingly generously-sized typeface, The Revenge Of The Non-Vegetarian is not only physically slight but also closer in its ambitions to a long short story than a novella. When Madhusudan Sen’s devoted subordinate, and supplier of non-vegetarian fare in the strictly vegetarian neighbourhood he lives in—a place called Batia in Bihar—is allegedly killed by his arsonist servant, the ICS officer vows not to touch meat until the perpetrator is brought to book. As the murder accused waits for the punitive force of law to befall him, Chatterjee gives us the low-down on judicial delays, alongside telling glimpses into the miserable man’s life and time in jail.

Thematically linked to the incidents of lynching and other atrocities of our time, the plot makes us think long and hard about ethical and moral questions, though the narrative also bristles with possibilities left unexplored. Presented as is, it does read like a wasted opportunity, suited to a much longer narrative, in which we could have encountered a more fleshed-out Madhusudan Sen, and got an account of his early life, especially his controversial marriage to a Goan woman, Agastya’s mother.

In 2000, Chatterjee wrote The Mammaries Of The Welfare State, a sequel to English, August, which did not quite match up to the acid wit and seamless flow of the original. Reading the much inferior prequel also drives home the brilliance of the first novel, which was adapted for the screen by Dev Benegal, along with Chatterjee, in 1994, with Rahul Bose playing the title role. After three decades, the small-town India that English, August conjured up still has contemporary resonances. Most of India’s hamlets and villages, even those where electricity, mobile phones and television have reached, continue to be sites of “lambent dullness", as the thoroughly city-bred Agastya puts it.

Technology, as well as better connectivity to major urban centres, may perhaps alleviate the boredom of the modern-day Agastya Sens, bound for their very own Madnas in contemporary India, but the desolation at the heart of Chatterjee’s novel is more existential, even metaphorical, than always real. Agastya is, as his father puts it, from “a generation that doesn’t oil its hair". In their thinking too, August and his peers are as unkempt: wracked by confusion, always seduced by the seemingly greener grass on the other side, and driven by self-serving goals till the end.

While August wants to give up his training in Madna because of the inhuman living conditions of the place and the frightfully deadening company it offers, his friend Dhrubo, an executive with a fancy international bank, wants to sit for the IAS entrance examination, believing it would open other, and more meaningful, doors in his life. The unreality of the cocoon men like them live in, thanks to their privilege, makes the sordid realities of the world incomprehensible to them. Agastya’s first brush with the real challenges of his job comes with his visit to a Naxal-infested area suffering from a shortage of drinking water.

Unlike the array of memorable characters in English, August (like R.N. Srivastav, the scowling collector of Madna and Agastya’s boss, or Sathe, a middle-aged cartoonist with a vitriolic sense of humour, addicted to booze and smug in his own company), the people who appear in The Revenge Of The Non-Vegetarian don’t have as much colour. Instead of dwelling on idiosyncrasies, the latter novel is more interested in drawing our attention to weightier questions of crime and punishment, life and death, religion and retribution.

If English, August tells the story of the disaffected generation that inherited the India set up by idealists like Madhusudan Sen, Chatterjee doesn’t fully absolve the latter in The Revenge Of The Non-Vegetarian either. For the young of our time, driven to distraction by the pursuit of material success, Agastya’s view of life may act as a pleasing antidote. “This narrow placid world, here and now, is enough," as he puts it in an affecting aside in English, August, “where success means watching the rajnigandhas you planted bloom." In the darker episode from his father’s life, sketched out in The Revenge Of The Non-Vegetarian, there is, though, an equally potent message for our time, overrun by a wave of bloodlust and revenge.

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