Book Review: English August

Author: Upamanyu Chatterjee
Published: 1988
Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 288

I smirked and laughed my way through this book. It’s an excellent read!

I may be a little biased because the plot of this book is almost a perfect projection of my life at present. But still, I feel the uncanny, witty and satirical writing style is in perfect harmony with the plot and the characters.

I am currently working for a Public Sector Enterprise: posted at a factory location at Vijaipur. This place is remote, very remote. Before coming here, I have been in major cities for almost 26 years. Majority of my years have been spent in “The City Beautiful’, Chandigarh, which is one of the best cities in India: for its blend of modernity and traditional fervor (I love Chandigarh, that’s not hard to figure out). Roll back a few years to 1970s and you will meet Agastya Sen or August or Ogu, the son of the Governor of Bengal and the central character of the book. He is brought up and educated in Kolkata and Delhi (Metropolitan Cities). At 23, he clears the Indian Civil service examination and gets posted to ‘Madna’ for a year-long training as an IAS (Indian Administrative Service) Officer. Now, Madna is modern day Vijaipur. Well, to be fair to August, the description renders it way ‘remoter’ than Vijaipur.

The author presents August as an Anglicized Indian given his westernized outlook and lack of finesse in speaking Bengali. August vividly narrates his deepest feelings and jumbled emotions about his job as ‘IAS sahib’ and fascinatingly details his impressions about Madna and the people he meets as a part of his job. The language and thought process presented is so natural that I couldn’t help thinking about my ‘Anglicized’ Bengali friends. August’s family (Dad and Uncle) and friends, both in Delhi and Madna find a promising supporting role in his story (Friends for soft drugs and Uncle as a critic). In order to survive in a subdued location, August uses distinct strategies to avoid work and explores unique excuses for not being in office. In one of the hilarious parts, August steals his superior’s car keys to make him scowl and shout at his servants. Why? Just to break the monotony of the events happening around him.

Overall, August’s struggle to accept his rather enviable situation and a candid firsthand account of his survival tactics is very engaging. Equally compelling is his final decision and the way he reaches it while he thinks, overthinks, gets intoxicated and stoned, with flair. Happy Reading!

Additional Info:

The author, Upamanyu Chatterjee is a 1983 batch IAS officer who is currently serving as a Joint Secretory on the Petroleum and Natural Gas Regulatory Board. In 1994, this book was adapted into a movie ‘English August’ directed by Dev Benegal with Rahul Bose playing the lead role. The movie is rated 7.1 on IMDB.

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