There's no such thing as fiction. A writer can write only about himself. In essence, at least. One can only go as far as masking a few names and tweaking a few situations. With every line of English, August by Upamanyu Chatterjee, long before I Googled him, long before I found out that he was in the IAS like the protagonist August (Agastya), I knew he was writing about himself. Such clear, wondrous thought streams are impossible to write, if a person has not lived them. Such delightful journeys through loneliness and solitude are impossible to describe, if a person hasn't taken them. Such beauty cannot entirely be conjured. It must pass through the smelter of personal experiences.
English, August is a charmingly irreverent book, among other things. It is refreshing in its curse-rich stream of consciousness writing, is educative and poignant all at the same time. It often talks in the manner of soliloquies, with a generous sprinkling of philosophical insights, without sounding lofty. It is funny, yet contained, enthralling the reader with the many anecdotal details of how the Indian Administrative Services functions. It is also a book, which has made me very curious about marijuana.
The story revolves around 24-year-old Agastya Sen, IAS, who is also Ogu to his relatives, August to his friends, Sen to his colleagues, and a disgruntled young man from the 'generation that doesn't oil its hair'. The book is full of these endearing little concoctions, and each brings about a genuine smile. Agastya, a man of Bengali-Goan parentage, educated in convent schools, the son of an IAS, follows in his father's footsteps and is posted in the quaint little town of Madna after he becomes an officer. What he cannot follow is the supposed glory a 'prestigious' job like this brings. Dreary office hours and painful social obligations later, he escapes into his private world of marijuana, music, musings and masturbation. In his room in the government guest house, he alternates between liking and disliking his restlessness, reads Marcus Aurelius and the Gita. He makes friends, passes desultory days, and insomniac nights, searching incessantly for an identity and some meaning in his life and values.
English, August is essentially the story of a man on a journey - as story of all of us on our respective journeys - trying to attach some purpose to it. If you like Indian English authors, and do not mind the title that is designed to mislead/attract a Western audience, get hold of it. It is a wonderful read, with characters so likable, that for days after you've finished reading it, you miss their company on the bus ride back home.