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English, August: An Indian Story

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Agastya Sen, known to friends by the English name August, is a child of the Indian elite. His friends go to Yale and Harvard. August himself has just landed a prize government job. The job takes him to Madna, “the hottest town in India,” deep in the sticks. There he finds himself surrounded by incompetents and cranks, time wasters, bureaucrats, and crazies. What to do? Get stoned, shirk work, collapse in the heat, stare at the ceiling. Dealing with the locals turns out to be a lot easier for August than living with himself. English, August is a comic masterpiece from contemporary India. Like A Confederacy of Dunces and The Catcher in the Rye, it is both an inspired and hilarious satire and a timeless story of self-discovery.

326 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1988

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About the author

Upamanyu Chatterjee

14 books180 followers
Upamanyu Chatterjee is an Indian author and administrator, noted for his works set in the Indian Administrative Service. He has been named Officier des Arts et des Lettres (Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters), by the French Government.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 469 reviews
Profile Image for Seemita.
180 reviews1,583 followers
October 22, 2015
Indecision will be your epitaph.
As the statement rung in my ear for more minutes than I cared to count, I stared at the mouth that just uttered it. No, it was not Agastya, the hero of this story but his best friend, Dhrubo, a brain-wracked, stoned, cajoled-to-distinguished young man who spent his time between perusing applications and criticising its submitters in an MNC bank in the megalopolitan city of Delhi. What light was he showing to Agastya, the young conqueror of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS as we call it), arguably the creamiest cadre one can land in this country? Apparently, the designations that elongate our names on our visiting cards belie the stark commonality in the ways we validate them.

Meet Agastya Sen. Or simply August (for the Sanskrit-naysayers). A 25-year-old-city-bred-booze-refuged-IAS-entrant-with-a-rural-posting lad. When he lands at Madna, a quintessential small town in the hinterland of rural boundaries, he takes the first bullet on his limbs when he stumbles upon things during his ride from the station to the guest house, witnessed hitherto only in documentary movies: broken roads, parched lands, dilapidated buildings, stripped walls and minimal civic sense. A second bullet lodges into his mind when he takes his first walk into the town: sparse shops, robbed hygiene, comatose wells, defeated fauna and more defeated people. But the third bullet, like the last nail in the coffin, pierces right into his heart upon meeting his department on the first day of reporting to office: comfortable postures, wrinkleless foreheads, carefree laughs, peaceful meals, nonchalant hearings and undaunted indifference.

The entire setup, like an ephemeral nightmare, leaves him with a restless mind. And who has ever conquered that? The atoms of thoughts that bang its surface with undiminished energy transport him to his relaxed, identifiable days in Delhi where along with his friends, he had swung cig-butts in the air and chortled while sucking at empty liquor bottles. He had luxuriated in his Uncle’s lush green gardens and ogled on a friend’s reckless fantasies. What the hell was he doing in Madna? What administrative overhaul can he bring to this town far beyond its expiry date? This alien space where the monsters looked like him in flesh but possessed the clandestine weapons to drive him mad with some acoustic buzzing of listless existence?

He decides to quit and return to where he belongs. But where does he belong?

How many times has it happened that a noxious smell turns aromatic upon discovering its source? How often have we changed our abhorrence to appreciation towards a dress upon knowing its presenter? How frequently a scurry of meaningless scribbling appears inspiring upon finding its writer? How often we gather meaning in bricks upon realizing the homes they have erected?

In Chatterjee’s exuberant, supremely humorous, soothingly lyrical and razor-sharp satirical recreation of a coming-of-age journey, one finds that a restless mind is one of the best gifts to have. This discoverer is so ardent in looking for coherence that, like a child scrapping balls of cream from a sandwiched biscuit, he slowly discerns delectable oxymorons of life: mordant humour, truncated ambitions, collective solitude, incomplete success, disturbing peace, refined crudity, contradicting togetherness, inactive thoughts and questionable beliefs. Agastya’s evaluation and re-evaluation of life encompasses the tools and revelations which in their omnipresence, accord a uniform identity to all humankind without compromising on their autonomy; much like how a disciplined military block appears on the march, each fighting their independent battles but deploying some common warfare and techniques for the larger objective of thumping victory over the enemy.

Whether Agastya finds his calling in the climax is immaterial because even this final stoppage can be considered only a temporary halt; a halt where his mental transistor catches fleeting signals from unknown territorial towers and continues the tinkering to assign them a spot on his list. This fever of restlessness defies all boundaries and cures and even a divine invocation can be of limited help.
The mind is restless, Krishna.
Profile Image for René.
Author 10 books43 followers
June 27, 2012
My father used to disappear in the evenings.

After supper, when my mother, brother and I would sit in front of the tv to watch Cheers, Moonlighting, Family Ties, this soft-spoken, mild-mannered Bengali man would take the dog and quietly slip out the kitchen door to spend hours walking in the woods behind our house.

I hope that the magic of those evenings spent in the silence of the forest somehow compensated for living thousands of kilometres from his family in India, in a god-forsaken Canadian hick town freezing his ass off with no friends to speak of. I hope so because he got no gratitude from his own sons, sullen little bastard that I was biding my time in that rural backwoods and looking forward to coming of age in the sophistication of the biggest city I could think of. In retrospect, I suspect that with children out of the picture, he would have gone back to India, or at least to Montreal or Toronto, both of which fostered Bengali communities.

I can only speculate.

He never voiced any regret at the choices he had made that led to the life he led. Like all parents, his inner life was mostly shielded from his children. And so, while I won’t compare him to the character of Agastya in this book (for one, my father never smoked marijuana or thought about sex, ever), that universal, desolate immigrant’s alienation certainly made me think of him while reading it, which is telescopic in a sense because Agastya himself is also thinking of his father during his stay in Madna.

It’s very difficult to articulate exactly what this book elicited in me while reading and make it cohere, so I’ll just throw stuff at the ceiling like semi-cooked pasta and hope some of it sticks, to amuse the guests.

Agastya (August) is an Indian Administrative Service officer in training, who has left the bustling energy of Calcutta for a forlorn existence in Madna, buffeted from one official to the next and trying to conserve some sense of self. He is unhappy, and lends this unhappiness the credence it warrants.

Afternoons, he spends time with exiles such as himself, drinking whiskey, smoking marijuana and voicing desultory thoughts. His mind wanders, restless, and during sleepless evenings he engages in nightly runs to tire his body and force it to remember what life should feel like. He sits in his room listening to of jazz music on cassette player (the story takes place in the 80’s) and reading Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. He suspects that his cook serves him faeces so scrounges meals off his social acquaintances and observes their family dynamics.

But Agastya is not lazy or without ambition. He aspires whole-heartedly to be happy. His senses are keen and he is always on lookout for perspective on his existence, the possibility of a way out, the conclusions of kindred travellers.
I read this book in the mornings. After dropping off my younger girl at school, I walk toward work and stop off every day at a youth hostel in Paris’ 19th arrondissement that has an open café. There, seated in a corner with my coffee and book, I hear other languages, mostly European but also some Asian, people come from all over, there’s a tingling in the air. It’s a good place to read a book like this one, steeped in an sense of passage, of curiosity, of search.
Profile Image for Megha.
79 reviews1,074 followers
March 17, 2012
I am surprised that 'English, August' is not better known. It is well-written and is refreshingly funny. While the most outstanding aspect of this novel is its humor, what I like the best about it is that the story is told in such a genuine voice. For once this is not an NRI author trying to bring forth the truth about "real" India. Chatterjee draws heavily from his own experiences in the Indian administrative service to paint a picture of life in rural India, working of Government offices and bureaucracy in India of 1983. The story centers around a westernized city-boy Augustya who is stranded in a small village with a job he isn't interested in at all. The western influence on young generation and vast difference between urban and rural lives form a part of the theme as well.
There were many instances where I could easily picture the scenes in the book because it was all so familiar, it is a very Indian story.

Plot-wise not a lot seems to happen. But I guess this is a reflection of the situation at hand - just the way things don't seem to progress in government offices responsible for development and nothing seems to change from day-to-day in small villages and towns.

"Most novels progress, but this one simply chronicles an ongoing anomie and spiritual restlessness."-Washington Post.

Chatterjee doesn't let the narrative get dull at all. He presents a satirical and humorous view of the way things function. He introduces us to an array of characters who are not too far from the kind of people one could encounter in real life. And each of them is entertaining in his or her own way. Even if the situation is dull, he effortlessly evokes humor with his wit and play of words. The language perfectly complements the mood of the novel. It can be read multiple times and it still won't grow stale.

Without any doubt, Chatterjee's writing is way ahead of the likes of Adiga, Swarup or Bhagat. I am glad I came across this novel. Way to go Mr. Chatterjee!
I wanted to post some of the funny excerpts from the novel. But there are so many of them, I don't know how to pick. Just read the book...
Profile Image for Arun Divakar.
796 reviews380 followers
December 28, 2012
A fresh recruit to the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) and his friend sit in their car, totally stoned and deliberating the relative merits of being a bureaucrat. Of top importance here is genuine concern of our protagonist's capability in being an efficient administrator. Here is how the conversation goes :

Friend : Out there in Madna quite a few people are going to ask you what you're doing in the Administrative Service. Because you don't look the role. You look like a porn film actor, thin and kinky, the kind who wears a bra. And a bureaucrat ought to be soft and clean shaven, bespectacled, and if a Tamil Brahmin, given to rapid quoting of rules. I really think you're going to get hazaar fucked.

Protagonist : I'd much rather act in a porn film than be a bureaucrat. But I suppose one has to live.

Friend : Let's smoke a last one, shall we ?

It was an excellent introduction to a novel character Agastya Sen who finds his befuddled way into the labyrinth of the administrative hassle of the Indian sub continent. His first posting as the lines above depict is to a place named Madna which is literally like saying it is in the middle of nowhere. The town is like an armpit for a city-bred, sophisticated youngster like Agastya and the government machinery in which he is now a part appears to him as the peak of inefficiency and complacence. Coupled with this is the mounting sense of loneliness and the absurd way in which the occupants of this small town appear to him. They are all caricatures and never fail to have him ( or us the readers) cracking up in silent mirth !

Agastya finds his relief in three things : marijuana, masturbation and loneliness. It is a slow slide into insanity for him and the only two things to keep him company are two books : a copy of Marcus Aurelius's Meditations and the Bhagavad Gita. In the rare moments when his mind is not clouded by the blue smoke of marijuana, he finds intellectual solace in these works. The tale makes you feel an almost overpowering feel of dislocation for not one of the main characters are where they wanted to be in life. August has a huge differentiating factor from all of them in the sense that he has absolutely zero ambition in his life. Now I know someone like this personally and the person lives life each day at a time and never worries about his career at any point. He switches off his mind after office hours and goes home. The end result being that he climbs the steps of the corporate ladder much more easily than all the other rats who run as if their tales are on fire. Agastya is of the same breed for all that he can feel is a disjointed state of mind with the rest of the world. He is quite happy to let the world pass him by and will perhaps wave at the world halfheartedly if pressed to do so. Unfortunately, the world never gives him the peace of mind he so craves. His reflections and mental dialog in times of solitude at points was so engrossing to me personally that I could not discern where my thoughts ended and the character's thoughts began !

The book is extremely hilarious and at many a point had me collapsing in laughter. The sarcastic answers by August to the middle aged colleagues are simply a treat ! But beneath this sheen of comic relief lies a bare-bones look at the stranglehold that bureaucracy has on rural India. The lethargy and inertia of the Sarkari Babus ( read as officials) is the punching bag on which Chatterjee lands his most powerful blows. As a reader, I however felt that the author did not give corruption among this mass it's due attention in this tale. Lethargy will only win the second prize when compared to how much corruption has rusted the machinery of Governance in India.

I never did know that this was a debut novel for such is the flair with which Chatterjee has written this novel.

One of the best reads in 2012 and very highly recommended.
Profile Image for Vartika.
373 reviews604 followers
September 10, 2020
3.5 stars: English, August has often been compared to The Catcher in the Rye, and in my opinion this is entirely to Salinger's advantage—Upamanyu Chatterjee's slacker may be lesser known outside of India, but is infinitely funnier than the infamous Holden Caulfield.

When Agastya Sen—a privileged, deracinated city boy known amongst friends by the anglicised nickname, 'August'—lands himself one of the country's most prized and coveted government jobs, he has to leave a life of easy affluence for the company of bureaucrats and lackeys in Madna, a small town at the back of beyond. But August has no interest in his life or work as part of the Indian Administrative Service, and spends his time shirking work, getting stoned, staring at the ceiling, and reading Marcus Aurelius or the Gita instead. Confronted by an inalienable sense of loneliness, he goes around getting to know the aimless idiosyncrasies and sycophancy that dot small-town life and bureaucracy in India while trying to come to terms with the listless incertitude of his own life and happiness.
Rahul Bose as Agastya Sen in Dev Benegal's award-winning 1994 movie adaptation of English, August, which was the first independent film to break into the mainstream in India. However, the film has today been declared lost and is only available in fragments.
Over thirty years on, Agastya's lethargy, vulgarity and existentialism continue to represent the quintessence of youthful aimlessness in "the generation"—any generation, although it originally referred Gen-Xers, like my parents, in their college days—"that doesn't oil its hair." However, his languor is also electrifying in its satirical portrayal of rural 'development' and inner workings of the bureaucracy—based, no doubt, on the author's own experiences as part of IAS batch of 1983. If nothing 'happens' in this story, it is because this is a true glimpse into the ways of the corrupt, file-thumping and ever-procrastinating class of elects we are told about. Similarly, the misogyny (truckloads of it), ineptitude and exploitative attitudes that the characters exude are also largely typical of these cadres.

English, August gets the metropolitan right, too, at least as far as the restlessness of the young is concerned: the story begins with our protagonist and his friend driving around and getting stoned on the wide, well-lit streets of Delhi, talking about how Agastya will get 'hazaar-fucked' in Madna. And yet, later, while Agastya is thinking of leaving his job, he finds his friend Dhrubo—with his executive job and comfortable lifestyle—preparing for the same IAS exam out of a sense of dissatisfaction with his lot. Our slacker's predicament may be unique, but his indecision is not a rarity.

However, what truly takes the cake is Chatterjee's masterful insertion of irreverent wit and humour, with both universal appeal and local flavour (especially his jokes on horrendous statues and 'government artists') into a timeless—and timelessly Indian—coming of age story. The prose is effortlessly lyrical, managing, even, to succour inflections of 'Indian English' and bathe them in a sense of elegant self-consciousness (if such a thing can indeed exist). No wonder, then, that English, August is credited, along with Rushdie's Midnight's Children, for bringing India onto the global literary map.
Profile Image for Vani Kaushal.
Author 3 books254 followers
June 12, 2015
Upmanyu Chatterjee's English, August is a witty (but in no way pithy!) commentary on the mammoth apparatus of the Indian bureaucracy with its inefficient babus (officials) and their untrained lackeys (minions, urchins, whatever!) and their lives as seen through the eyes of a young Indian civil servant, Agastya Sen. Though the story has been written some twenty years ago, it is still relevant today as gives a snapshot of that reality which countless millions live in this country every day because of the apathy of senior government officials. In the author's own words: 'eventually he (Agastya Sen) learnt to see the pattern...of how... the passage of a petition or a request for redress (from a petitioner)...moved around from desk to desk, gathering around it, like flesh around a kernel, comment and counter comment, and irrelevant comment, till it was fat enough to be offal for the rats in the office cupboards.' And while the files keep accumulating in government offices, the pattern continues, only the faces change and each year when a new officer joins the service, he is inducted into the ways of this world with cups and cups of tea, followed by useless meetings, desultory conversations by lazy officials, more tea, more discussions and no decisions ever.

At the start of the story, Agastya is sent as a trainee officer to Madna, an 'eternally somnolent town' in the vast Indian hinterland, which, as per his bureaucrat father might prove to be a very 'educative experience' for him. Quite contrary to that, Agastya is soon bored by the pace of the town and depressed by the insipid lives of people that surround him and all that he ends up doing is 'exercise, masturbate, listen to music, read slim books on philosophy and live his secret life' which includes getting entertained by a pet frog or watching lizards on the wall. He feigns falling ill a couple of times to avoid meetings that promise 'slow death' even though scared his mentor might visit him and catch him masturbating or smoking a joint or both. The novel takes the reader through days spent in a town like this, observing the social life of its people, sulking at their lack of motivation, countless hours of brooding on their lifestyle which has little pleasures except scolding one's servants or showing off power to junior officers. It is at best a social commentary, peppered with wry boyish humour that keeps one entertained, even in the absence of a plot. In the author's own words: 'every day in the office I feel as though my head is being raped, like somebody's pushed his cock in through my ears and is moving it around in my brain, mixing his semen in my brain matter' or 'Agastya shook a warm, moist and sticky hand, and wondered if the fat man had been masturbating below the bridge table'.

Eventually, Agastya concludes that this world is way different from what he was a part of. In this world, 'life is a leisurely affair', one in which 'a bullock's tail could flick dung on to you if you weren't careful, in which a sulking district judge could ring you up to tell you that he was not inviting you to dinner, where you hungrily scoured the offices of subordinate district officials'. The story thus chugs along, from one scene to the other, from Sathe to Srivastav to Bajaj to Dr Multani to Vasant to Averys to Shankar to Dhrubo to Pultukaku, each character with its own eccentricities, and somehow the 'wit' never wearing away.
Profile Image for Kunal Sen.
Author 1 book42 followers
June 20, 2014
Nearly twenty-five years after it was first published, Upamanyu Chatterjee’s ‘English, August’, remains as contemporary, as relevant and as annoyingly brilliant as it was back then, back when it came out of nowhere to light up the literary fiction scene here that was in a post-Rushdie slump.

If one were to ask me to do that obnoxious job of ‘summing-up’ a literary fiction novel, I would base it more or less, on its old blurb. So ‘English, August’ is a darkly-comic story of Agastya Sen, a young civil servant who at the age of twenty-four, finds himself posted in the obscure town of Madna—located somewhere in the great Indian hinterland—and stuck in a job that bewilders him and in a place he can’t relate to. Slowly, over the course of a year, with his time divided between Marcus Aurelius, masturbation and marijuana, he begins unraveling his country and in the process, discovers himself.

To me, the book—and this is what I fall for the most and every time—is a story about homelessness. Motherless Agastya, with a VVIP father in Governor Sen, is an urbane but lonely child. After passing the civil services, possibly on behest of his father and faced with the responsibilities that are more expected of him, he finds himself caught between two worlds or his three lives, as he describes them in his own words in the book.

The two worlds, comprise his carried-over world of Carlos Suarra, Werner Herzog, Dhrubo, his father and his old, hometown’s ‘urban and shallow’ life (or so he believes) and the new and alien world of Madna, of heat, mosquitoes and corruption. The three lives consist of the professional life in the office, working under Srivastava’s surprisingly able guidance; his social life with Sathe, masticated kebabs and other new-found acquaintances. His private, secret life is one of ennui, soft-drugs and reveries of sex.

About Madna, Agastya says when he first finds himself there—“I found myself, dislocated and unhinged, albeit without the compensations of wisdom.”

For much of the early part of the book, Agasta Sen can be likened to Josef K in Kafka’s ‘The Trial’, finding himself in a surreal and baffling world that till then he had heard of only in newspapers when something bad happened in them. Madna is a place on the newspaper margins—insignificant and generic on one hand but allegorical and somewhat of a metonym, on the other. And through the prism of this rambling town, Upamanyu paints a composite picture of an India where surprisingly little has changed over the years.

The novel is helmed by a cast of eclectic characters: the major ones include the conscientious Mr. Srivastava, his wife, the jovial and enigmatic Sathe, Agastya’s best friend in that straight-from-a-Bruce Robinson movie kind of guy: Dhrubo, the intimidating yet vulnerable Governor Sen; and a whole gamut of minor but quirky characters that make up the third-leads. The characters could also be divided into the originals: Agastya, Sathe, Mr. and Mrs. Srivastava, etc., and the adapted: Krishna, Arjun and Marcus Aurelius

Coming to the book’s tone and language, I think the profanity is a shield, like the self-defense mechanism of a hurt child. And you, as a reader, need to get past it, because richer yields await you once you accomplish that. The title itself is a kind of euphemistic take on his name. At several places, we find an increasingly frustrated Agastya describe the genesis of his name to gullible listeners through a hundred elaborations. The oft satirical, postmodern novel never loses its wisdom once, in all its briskness. It never loses that little bit of lurking melancholy, despite all its ironic cynicism, wittiness and repartee. It is transgressive and soulful. Most of the humor is situational but that’s only saying half the truth. The humor is essentially derived out of hyperrealism, a skewed, distorted distillation of the plain and baffling world and its ways, through the dangerously inventive narrator, Agastya (“I lied. Besides, I also disliked their faces.”) So the fact that the files fall with sharp claps or dull thuds, depending on their weight—a passing line of ostensibly little significance—constitute a condemnation for the whole bureaucratic system and its red-tape through the very visual of the humdrum chore and its futility. In another little line about his father: “He read Sanskrit shlokas in the morning and ate corned beef sandwiches in the evening,” he questions the fundamentals of faith and religion and its rituals and the things in between and around. He talks about so many things, does Agastya/Upamanyu. A lesser writer would’ve had Agastya and Mrs. Srivastava embark on a doomed affair. But this is Chatterjee.

His craft bears birthmarks of a genius. How many writers would write something like, ‘Lambent dullness indeed,’ for example? He mixes high-brow and functionality. He combines chic and cheek, cynicism and vulnerability, bleakness and bravado like nobody's business. Embellishment goes with nakedness in his sentences. The book oozes exceptional prose, and then some. Most of his humor, though the humor here is a means and not the end, is outstanding and on par with the best of Bill Waterson’s deadpans. For example, when he imagines the dubious looking green chutney on his plate asking him, ‘Hi, my name is Cholera!’ or when he suspects his cook Vasant of poisoning him, and little, odd things like that.

Of course, then there’s Renu’s letter to Dhrubo; in what is perhaps the crowning glory in the book, Chatterjee, in two and a half pages, gives us a masterclass in writing.

‘English, August’ is essential reading.
Profile Image for Rukmini.
208 reviews5 followers
February 7, 2017
'How old are you, sir?'
'Twenty-eight.'Agastya was twenty-four, but he was in a lying mood. He also disliked their faces.
'Are you married, sir?' Again that demand that he classify himself. Ahmed leaned forward for each question, neck tensed and head angled with politeness.
'Yes.' He wondered for a second whether he should add 'twice'.
'And your Mrs, sir?' Agarwal's voice dropped at 'Mrs'; in all those months all references to wives were in hushed, almost embarrassed, tones. Agastya never knew why, perhaps because to have a wife meant that one was fucking, which was a dirty thing.
'She's in England. She's English, anyway, but she's gone there for a cancer operation. She has cancer of the breast.' He had an almost uncontrollable impulse to spread out his fingers to show the size of the tumour and then the size of the breast, but he decided to save that for later. Later in his training he told the District Inspector of Land Records that his wife was a Norwegian Muslim.

Agastya Sen ('August' to his school friends) is twenty-four when he drifts into the Indian Administrative Service, mostly because he can't think of anything else he wants to do. The novel describes his year of training in small-town India. Horny, supercilious, and a little too clever for his own good, August spends his time in Madna getting stoned, masturbating constantly and lying inventively about his background.
I couldn't stop laughing through the first half of this book. The langauge is rich and creative; Chatterjee excels in juxtaposing words and phrases in ways that startle laughter out of the reader.
The book is also surprisingly affecting when it describes August's loneliness and disorientation. More than that, it speaks to the identity crisis that many middle-class Indian kids go through at one point or another: when your first language is English and everything around you reminds you of something you've read in a foreign book, how authentic an Indian are you?
Profile Image for Karan Bajaj.
27 reviews284 followers
January 17, 2016
My all-time favorite novel. Actually, it's much more than just a book for me, English August inspired me to become a writer. I was living in a village in my sales training with Procter & Gamble and feeling the same sense of utter dislocation that Agastya Sen felt and didn't think a soul in the world would understand exactly how alienated I felt with both my current life and my past life at B-School. Then, I ran into the wise (and wise-guy) Agastya Sen. And suddenly, my world filled up, as I felt truly understood for the first time, making me realize the incredible power of writing in connecting us in this messy, glorious human experience. This was one that I made my (American) wife read before we got married, to help her understand parts of my 'coming-of-age' in India that would be otherwise difficult to convey. Not sure she appreciated it quite as much, but to me it's a classic.
Profile Image for Gorab.
626 reviews104 followers
July 25, 2016
A slap stick comedy with a rude, weird and twisted sense of humor! Abundance of crazy laugh out loud moments thrown around in small chunks here and there... which are bound to catch you off the guard. In spite of all this, the overall plot and story didn't work out well with me and slowly the protagonist became kinda repulsive!!!

"Agastya! That's a wonderful name. What does it mean?"
"It's Sanskrit for one who turns the flush just before he starts pissing, and then tries to finish pissing before the water disappears."

I tried to read it through before the laughter disappears, but unfortunately couldn't... and then it stinks!!!
P.S : I hate the idea of a book having chapters, without having chapter numbers or sub-headings!
Profile Image for Pawan Mishra.
Author 8 books185 followers
January 18, 2016
I remember this book as a comic masterpiece. I had read it about 18 years ago - yet remember Madna and the protagonist's hilarious flirt with his own life and the surrounding.
Profile Image for Ashish.
254 reviews47 followers
January 20, 2016
Well, this book was everything I didn't expect it to be. I had very little knowledge about the book to begin with other than the fact that it has bern adapted into an acclaimed movie (which now I need to watch). I had no idea it was a stoner novel, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

The book gets off to a slow start but shapes up beautifully, and some parts are beautiful. Its one of the few Indian novels that I have read that touched upon existentialism, although it does come across as the ramblings of a pothead. If only the author had made it not seem so, I would have loved it even more. Thats doesnt take away from some of the pretty imaginative and sometimes hilarious observations and thoughts of the protagonist.

The overall theme of the book, I would say is about alienation; about the sense of not belonging, about being so far from home, and about being out of the comfort zone. Overall I would say its a pretty honest look into the human mind and how people (atleast some people)think in all its naked glory.
Profile Image for ✨H✨.
59 reviews18 followers
May 15, 2021
English, August gives an unfiltered peek into Agastya's mind. He is a city bred who somehow manages to crack the most difficult exam of the India,IAS and is now posted in a rural area.

His thoughts are chaotic but at the same time very assuring. You realize you are not only one who is sometimes jealous of a stray dog because you think they have it easy.

I enjoyed the book in its relatibility. Agastya's sense of dislocation and aimlessness is representative of most of people in their 20's and his crooked view of the world only makes him more intriguing. He is sarcastic and his humour is observational which really helps to get Madna(town where he is posted to) in perspective. At the end of the book you wish you could have been friends with him because you see so much of yourself in him.

“I am not ambitious for ecstasy, you will ask me to think of the future, but the decade to come pales before this second, the span of my life is less important than its quality. I want to sit here in the mild sun and try and not think, try and escape the iniquity of the restlessness of my mind. Do you understand? Doesn't anyone understand the absence of ambition, or the simplicity of it?”

This book is going to be a bit slow to read(atleast, that was the case with me) because the plot is non-existent. It reads more like a daily log. It is a character driven story that will capture your attention from the very first page.

There were a few things which I thought were missing :-.

In India, IAS has always been the most difficult exam of the country and the individuals who manage to bag themselves a seat are well aware of the current affairs, to say the least. But in author’s own words-

“he had generally avoided newspapers and what they called current affairs. News had never interested him, unless it had been calamitous, in which case it had got to him anyway.”

Agastya also wasn't even sure if it is called a Gandhi cap or a Nehru cap and various other instances where let alone the duties he isn't even aware of the common government job abbreviations. This ignorance doesn’t make sense for an IAS. So a little insight as to how Agastya cracked the exam without knowing all this would have given more context.

Throughout the book Neera was one secondary character which always intrigued me. I wish we could have gotten to know more about her.
Profile Image for Maura Finkelstein.
27 reviews36 followers
August 31, 2007
while possibly the most brilliant book I've encountered about bureaucracy, this novel crashes and burns around page 100, sadly dragging out it's swan song for another 200 pages.
Don't get me wrong: I truly appreciated the humorous story of a young Bengali man who, after enlisting in the Indian Administrative Service, finds his life directed to a small depressing dusty town 500 km from nowhere. How better to construct a backdrop for Sen's long hot days of locking himself in his stifling room, smoking pot, masturbating, and fantasizing about other men's wives? additionally, such lethargy is electrifying in it's ability to reveal the infuriating operations of daily administrative life in rural India, and the apathy of middle aged civil servants. However, I cursed Upamanyu Chatterjee as I forced myself to finish his novel: "English, August" is only worth starting if you are more than happy to put it down half-read.
Profile Image for Rakesh P.M.
7 reviews7 followers
February 1, 2023
still remember reading this book. At that time, I was not yet introduced to the French Existentialist tradition. I read this book and liked it, and still do. Maybe my reading habits have changed a bit, I want to think about this book as something which should have carried a lot of style. Like something a la James Joyce, that play of words, that cacophony of thoughts, the unique commingling of seemingly inane thoughts with grandiose ideals.

Here, we have the Indian civil servant, posted in an obscure hinterland, who finds himself in abysmal conditions. He laments about the lack of everything and slowly turns stoic. But to be honest, I, from the vantage point I now have, do not think the story goes far from that.

That being said, this is an exceptional classic in Indian English literature. But the protagonist doesn’t make much of an effort to understand the people, the poor people. He always remains aloof and stubborn.
Profile Image for Charu.
13 reviews13 followers
December 29, 2012
The frivolously rude book is written with humor and candor. Cheeky, sarcastic and impregnated with the characters, recognizable to anyone familiar with bureaucracies - sycophant colleagues, overbearing boss, infamous police inspector and unreliable servants makes it convincing and gripping.

The book builds around, Agastya, a half-Bengali, half-Goan guy, who procures a bureaucratic post in the Indian civil service and is posted to a rural village for his training. However, the book doesn’t feature anything close to the dignified, aspiring profession of IAS. The protagonist gets his posting in Madna, a place which is a true caricature of any other town in India – oppressive, dusty and being rural devoid of the basic facilities. For most of his stay, he shirks work and feels trapped between the worlds of modernity and tradition, both extremes familiar yet distant at the same time. He finds himself an absolute misfit and incapable of communicating or connecting to the locals or colleagues.

Agastya’s lethargy is spent largely in trying to adjust, pondering, smoking pot, locking himself in his stifling room, masturbating, and fantasizing. By the way, yes, there is a fair amount vulgarity that runs throughout the book, but somehow it never feels like the author is going all lowest common denominator on you.

I would not say that the writing is phenomenal, but some of the descriptions would leave you into splits. The story lacks a strong plot but the author has an uncanny ability to pull it through the characters which seems real and engaging - fantastically farcical !!

Honestly, I think “English, August” is a riot. I'd recommend this book for anyone looking for engaging comic novel or going through quarter-life crisis, indecision, dissatisfaction with the working world. It is a read that could be finished in rather few chugs (granted, I took a little longer to finish it off).
Profile Image for Lee Anne.
819 reviews69 followers
March 10, 2010
Agastya "August" Sen is in training with the Indian Administrative Service. He is sent to the remote town of Madna to learn the job.

The back cover blurb for this book suggests it is the Indian equivalent of The Catcher in the Rye or A Confederacy of Dunces, but I think it is instead the fictional equivalent of the Indian Administrative Service: dull, repetitive, confusing.

Agastya pays no attention to the job, gets stoned a lot, masturbates, calls in sick, lies for no reason, visits other places while ignoring Madna entirely, talks to old friends he may or may not like. and complains about the food. He's meant to be funny in his angst-y confusion, but I was annoyed and bored. Nothing much happens, and when he decides to quit the IAS, you don't know if he'll stick to it or not. And I didn't care.

This was a big hit when it was published in India some twenty years ago, but for me, it was a rare dud from the New York Review of Books imprint.
Profile Image for Annette mathews.
68 reviews71 followers
June 18, 2016


I am not annoyed , but guilty for dragging two of my friends to read this book. One of them finished it and the other well, let us just say i followed her suit .

The story was not going anywhere . I didn't like the language used . It was rude and the lead was just an ordinary guy.There was nothing special about him.Why should i waste my time reading about him when i see the same set of people in my day to day life. He saw women in a different way .No, this book is not my cup of tea and never will be . I was blinded by all the great reviews in Good reads .So much for nothing.Maybe it gets better as it goes. But i don't want to try it .

I wont recommend this book for anyone .
Profile Image for Rishav Agarwal.
249 reviews33 followers
June 27, 2017
As the title suggests this is a very Indian Story and remains to be so even 30 years after it was first penned. It is heartening as well as uncanny to find having vile, vulgar and vague thoughts is an integral part of any generation and that existential anxiety runs in vein with the incredible experiences (only in Indian can you be shit upon by three different animals while being burnt to a crisp by the midday sun) that sum up our lives making us truly Indian. That being said, I find a lot of semblance between me (and my friends) and the 24 year old August who is clueless about his responsibilities as an civil servant, anxious about wasting his time and yearning to be happy.
359 reviews173 followers
August 14, 2017
What a story! Upamanyu's Chatterjee's 1988 novel is an absolute delight, and so is Agastya Sen's terrible aimlessness. Seldom have I been made to laugh and think so much, and almost never have I read something this seeped in self-mockery. English, August is nothing short of a modern classic, and I will definitely come back to it again and again for the sheer dark enjoyment it brought me.
Profile Image for Sandhya.
130 reviews366 followers
August 8, 2009

I know English, August came a long time ago, and though I remember catching glimpses of the film and being intrigued by it, I never got around to reading the book. I finally did read it and was amazed at how fresh and timeless this Upamanyu Chatterjee book still feels. The book was written in the late 80s and recounts the author's stint as an IAS (Indian Administrative Service) officer in a small district town in Madna. At that time, it got a great cult following, not just for the story, but the way it was recounted –with generous use of cuss words, sexually explicit passages and all of that. I dare say, this remains as sharp a read as it possibly was then.

Born and bred in metros like Calcutta and Delhi, the book's 24 year old protagonist, Agastya Sen feels completely disoriented to be posted in an underdeveloped, far-flung place in Central India. The abysmal living conditions unsettle him. And with his habit of smoking marijuana and being stoned most of the time, Agastya finds himself in a perpetual state of daze, even as he listlessly goes about with his job. He's struck by the laidback attitude of the administrative community, trying to battle with the trying conditions of the place. The collector -Mr Srivastava leading a relatively lavish lifestyle - keeps the social scene quite vibrant. Work takes a back seat for everyone and Agastya, caught in lethargy and inertia, is happy to get away with doing little or nothing. Most of the time his head is spinning, as he wonders what a guy like him could be doing in a place like Madna. But such is the heaviness he feels all round him, that he cannot gather the will to pull himself together.
It’s a vicious circle and the author brilliantly and skillfully describes page after page Agastya’s growing sense of boredom, frustration and farcical existence.

“God, he was fucked – weak, feverish, aching, in a claustrophobic room, being ravaged by mosquitoes, with no electricity, with no sleep, in a place he disliked, totally alone, with a job that didn’t interest him, in murderous weather, and now feeling madly sexually aroused. His stomach contracted with his laughter. He wanted to rebel. He said loudly, ‘I’m going to get well, shave my head, put on a jock strap and jog my way out of here’

It’s really one person’s account as he goes by his life aimlessly, but Upamanyu Chatterjee infuses his story with such varied and colourful episodes, dots it with so many nuanced characters, creates such a perfect sense of the place, that you are effortlessly drawn into a narrative that stays vibrant in spite of the essential static life of Agastya. And all this is recounted with a brazen sense of abandon and wry humour that it makes you chuckle and smile.

More admirably, the author brings a rare emotional nakedness and searing honesty to his protagonist’s internal monologues and observations, not felt by me since James Joyce’s A Portrait of An Artist As A Young Man. There are several brilliant passages that bare the protagonist’s inner most feelings but I continued to be amazed by Upamanyu Chatterjee’s power of perception and his ability to wrench out those thoughts so well.

“The noise of the jeep made sustained conversation impossible foe 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....

Since one assumes that the author has brought a great deal of his own personal experiences during his posting in the book and Agastya seems to be his alter ego, one wonders why he didn’t use the first person. Not that it makes a big difference but one would think of it as a natural option to take, considering that the narration is entirely from the protagonist’s point of view. Maybe a second reading will throw some light on that.

To sum up, the book feels as fresh to read today as ever. Easily, this has to be one of the most brilliantly written and genuinely edgy reads for me.
Profile Image for Joseph Rai.
47 reviews1 follower
January 26, 2018
English, August by Upamanyu Chatterjee - funny and highly recommended! If you are disgruntled with your jobs please read on:

Indian Administrative Services (IAS) is unarguably one of the most coveted jobs in India. Thousands burn the midnight oil and flock the test preparation centres to crack the supremely competitive civil servant exams.

Sadly only a handful succeeds. If you’re one of them who missed the mark and still nursing the wound of rejection, Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English, August is the book you need in your life.

Not that the novel will help you pass in your next attempt but it sure will make you laugh, which is important. I believe, the fortunate ones already bestowed with the badge of an IAS officer will also enjoy this book. It might make them empathise or strongly degree with the portrayal of the character and circumstances. But the wry humour packed in this novel could just deliver them the catharsis they need in their lives because we know a lot is riding on their shoulders.

The novel follows 24-year old Agastya Sen, who has passed the IAS and is posted to a remote village, Madna, in the country. At the very outset, we are intimated of his nonchalance towards his job. He is taking it up just because he has triumphed in the exams. His friends think so too that he will be screwed having to adjust with the rural life after having an Anglicised upbringing. No wonder, he is teasingly called 'August' by his friends!

Agastya’s early struggles with bad food, extreme heat, and the perplexity with the nature of his job is comically brought to life. The functioning of our bureaucracy in rural areas is laid bare underlining some of our preconceived notions about our system. Scenes of how files keep piling up in government offices and how some top bureaucrats deliberately make it a point to reach public functions late and make everyone wait to underline their superiority, is bang on. Besides, the issue of ego tussle among the bureaucrats themselves and with politicians is smartly woven around the plot.

What keeps the novel engaging is Agastya’s quirky character. He is cannabis hungry (I am not kidding). The time he spots a cannabis in Madna he is consumed with the urge to smoke. He is also very wicked to the point of being devilish. After all, how many of us would actually steal the car keys of our bosses and then revel in the pandemonium that ensues. Agastya does.

There is a hint of Darjeeling (my hometown) in the book too that made the reading experience a tad bit heartwarming amid the laughter I was breaking into constantly. The writing is sharp and the description of the rural landscapes to the point. Chatterjee is definitely a new find for me.

Above all, the novel is a telling commentary on our dissatisfaction with our jobs more so with the current generation, who seeks faster results and instant gratification. That is why the book is so pertinent even today. The novel, published in 1988, is said to be semi-autobiographical written by Chatterjee in his late 20s.

So even if you never gave a thought about IAS but you are terribly disgruntled with your job, this book is for you too.
Profile Image for Pratibha Suku.
152 reviews85 followers
February 14, 2016
Filth disguised as 'humor'. And Yes, you read is right.

This story is about an IAS Probationer put on District attachment duty in a rural remote area.Put on ground he starts having doubt about his career choice. He starts passing his time wandering from this office to that. By using so called 'sarcasm' and all derogatory remarks the inefficiency of bureaucratic and govt serveries as a whole is tried to be shown.Here and there some facts about the backwardness of place is thrown in. The Naxal hit area lacking the basic amenity of living. So all about an elite privileged who cannot cope up or think of a survival with the realities of underprivileged.

With so many popular names giving high marks to this I didn't give much of a thought before starting this book but I never knew I was up for a big time ordeal. There are handful of words which have found persistent usage throughout and for me that was the biggest turnoff.

Lastly, I am unable to understand what kind of readers the author was/is aiming to reach. May be the one who don't do the initial homework before taking up a job which they have to live in.

As a whole a Dull. (0 Star)
Profile Image for Rahul Bhaskar.
4 reviews11 followers
April 20, 2007
"The mind is indeed restless, Krishna."

Hajaar Fucked Book. My All Time Favorite. Chatterji tells the story of a young civil servant posted in a nondescript district in the hinterland. His feeling of dislocation and self-pity strikes a chord. And of course, there are the funny encounters. Sathe, the cartoonist, Mandy, the Pseud-American and Dhrubo-the "mother fucker".
The time period in which the book is set adds to the mood of it all. Early 80s. The unrest in the society is clearly reflected in the author's work. There are too many layers in this book and I lack the skill to describe them all in a review. But yeah, Renu(the Punjaban) and Neera come close to being my perfect women. :)

Chatterji does not glorify his protagonist. In fact, he presents him as an everyday person with shallow and flexible morals.

Too bad, he could not do an encore. The Last Burden was good, but not close.. Mainly, I guess, because it was a heavy read. And "Mammaries..." and "Weight-Loss", though I haven't read them, have been colossal disasters.

Go buy this one without any second thoughts.
Profile Image for Viju.
328 reviews79 followers
July 15, 2022
Where do I even start! If there is a book that's struck a chord instantly and through the entire 300 pages, it has to be English, August.

A very very simple premise about that one year the protagonist spends in a remote place in rural India, and how his mind works. Having been in a similar situation battling loneliness amidst other career uncertainties, at time it felt as though I was reading something that I'd penned down.

A joyous read with some good writing.

2022 reread:

Read it in three places - started in Rishikesh, continued in Coimbatore and wrapped it up in Goa. Picked it up again before reading its sequel. This book deserves a reread from time to time. Upamanyu Chatterjee is a great writer and this book deserves to be read much more.
Profile Image for Gagandeep  Singh.
26 reviews14 followers
July 12, 2020
What a great, refreshing (ohh the irony) read this has been.

To me, August isn't a character and more like my 3am voice being the existential dramatic person I can be.

I found this book to be very resonating and certain passages in the book were very LOUD. For example,

He had never had any ambition, perhaps because he had never before been unhappy. Now he was surprised by the memory of those earlier desires of what he felt had been his innocence — to choose colours for the bogeys of trains; such wishes had always been frivolous, now they became blasphemous. For life had suddenly become a black and serious business, with a tantalizing, painfully elusive, definite but clichéd, goal, how to crush the restlessness in his mind.

I'd definitely revisit this book later in life.
Profile Image for Sunil.
170 reviews64 followers
November 21, 2007
Actually a revisit; I am reading now with a friend, travelling across India ( Ah!! joy of reading aloud a passage on an Indian beach);

Had read it first time when I was a spring-chicken, hardly grasped its essence; Now having met so many Shrivatsavs, Kumars, Bhatias, Sathes, Mrs Rajans, even Vasanth, why even that bastard Tamse, I feel at home here, It is like returning to a childhood lover who has grown more gorgeous, on whose sweet shapely belly you can lay your head and wonder ... Why, The mind is so restless...Oh Krishna?
Profile Image for Sam.
Author 12 books16 followers
December 9, 2011
I got bored with this book part-way through, and stopped reading it. It seems to be an endless tale of rich-boy ennui. The narrator, who is an Indian Administrative Service trainee, just sits around and smokes marijuana and masturbates and makes fun of everyone else all the time. He has no redeeming qualities that I can see, and nothing happened in the portion of the book I read. But there are some really funny parts.
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