English, August: In The ‘Emotional Nakedness Of Agastya’, I See Myself

Posted on February 23, 2015 in Books, Culture-Vulture

By Bhanvi Satija:

Like all readers, I too have a peculiar habit – I pick up books that appeal to me. Now, if you were to ask me what kind of books appeal to me, I would probably have no answer to it. I would say, ‘it just depends on the book’. When I look at a book or hold it in my hand for the first time and feel an urge to read or buy it – I will. The title, the summary, or sometimes, even the cover can possibly stimulate this urge.

English, August cover

It was in the early days of December last year, winter had just started settling in, when I found this treasure of a book lying in my collection. I decided to read it – thinking that it would be a good recreational break from exam related studies. “English, August: An Indian Story” is a book written by Upamanyu Chatterjee, first published in the year 1988, and later adapted into a movie in 1994.

The story of the book revolves around a city boy named Agastya Sen, or August as he is popularly known amongst his friends. He is about to start his training for the Indian Administrative Services exam. Agastya is the only son of a Bengali father and Goa-nese mother – a fact that his orthodox relatives can never get over. Agastya is a boy, born and brought up in the posh cities of Delhi and Calcutta, with all the facilities that he could ask for – thus, he has absolutely no idea about what awaits him in Madna, an under developed district in the vast landscape of our country.

The book talks about Agastya’s journey of adapting to the district life of Madna, the work culture of the IAS, and the exploration of his own self. For a long time during his training, his only methods of adaptation were masturbation and marijuana. How he deals with the cultural shock that he got, and how his restless mind is engaged in the dichotomy of choosing between his happiness and his responsibilities, all of this forms the crux of the plot. Chatterjee, in this brilliant piece of humorous satire, has beautifully depicted the innate nature of human beings and their quest for happiness.

Through Agastya’s character, the author represents a journey that all of us go through at different points of time in our lives – when we question where we are, and why we are there – while constantly trying to overcome our insecurities and seeking peace of mind.

As the story unfolds, Agastya meets new people in and around Madna, tries other methods of adapting (like reading Marcus Aurelius, The Gita, and writing a journal), and fails at them too. Chatterjee has also marvelously brought out the emotional nakedness of Agastya’s character in various passages of the book, displaying a strong sense of perception, and wonderfully creating it in words for the reader.

For instance – “The noise of the jeep made sustained conversation impossible for which Agastya was happy. He could slide down in his seat till his neck rested against its back and, without chafing, allow his mind its restlessness. In a jeep, he would smile and argue with himself, you can do nothing about your mind or your future, not until the journey is over. In a moving jeep he was not vexed by the onus of thought…”

Through other characters like Srivastav, Kumar, Gandhi, and Bhatia, their interactions with Agastya and amongst each other, the author also gives us a deep insight into the functioning of the Indian Administrative Services. A particularly interesting character in the book is that of Gandhi, who is also an officer in the Forest Department at Madna – where he and Agastya become friends. Towards the second half of the book, when both Gandhi and Agastya are transferred into smaller regions within Madna, Agastya finds out that a few months ago Gandhi was accused of raping a tribal woman in the area where he had been posted. Because of this accusation, two men from the same tribe had decided to punish him arbitrarily by cutting off his arms. Whether or not he is guilty – the readers are to decide. Through this incident and the setting of the book, Chatterjee takes the reader deep inside the district of Madna, making sure that the reader feels like he/she is a part of the story.

Throughout the book, Chatterjee brilliantly brings out his personal experiences through Agastya’s character. No wonder then, that the book has achieved the honour of being a ‘classic’. At the time it was published, the book had a cult following, not just for the story, but due to the way it was recounted –with generous use of cuss words and sexually explicit content. I dare say – this remains as sharp a read now as it possibly was then.

For me though, the story of August is relevant at a more personal level – probably because of the time when I read this book. As a first year student, struggling to adjust in college, I could relate to Agastya’s struggles more directly – the uncertainty of the future, with high hopes and aspirations for changing my country, the restlessness of mind, the cultural shock, and the difficulty of finding ways of adjustment. While Agastya dealt with all of this and the dichotomy of choosing between his personal happiness and his responsibilities towards the society, I constantly battled my roles in life – being a child versus being an adult, often questioning my own capabilities. At a certain level, I too struggled with making a choice between my personal happiness and my responsibilities – the struggle becomes too hard sometimes, and you do feel like giving up. Over the last few months, I have realised that all of us, at some point or the other, experience such a phase in life. In fact, some of us do so at regular intervals – like me. However, we should all remember that like Agastya, the story of our lives would also find its true meaning someday, and that giving up is never an option. What we also must remember is that all of us experience such a phase in life, and all of us deal with it in our unique ways – and that is – some people choose their personal happiness over their responsibilities, and there isn’t anything wrong with that.

Thus, as I had hoped, the book did prove to be good company, and before I lend it to my senior, I must pen down my favourite phrase-cum-lesson, which Agastya has taught me, “To each his own.”