First published in 1988, Upamanyu Chaterjee’s “English August” is the story of a young civil servant posted to a fictional rural town in India. Largely regarded as the ‘Indianest’ novel in English, the novel captures the zeitgeist of the 1980’s when India was emerging from economic isolation and ill-conceived socialism.
Chaterjee, a member of the Indian civil service himself, and having travelled across the lengths and breadths of the country, portrays an ‘India’ in his book rarely seen in modern Indian writing. It reveals a detailed insight into the heartland that can result only from personal experience. Graham Greene once remarked, “Without him I could never have known what is like to be Indian.”
There is something quaint about Chaterjee’s descriptions, reminders of a time when a Walkman was still a totem of modernity and the title, “English August” is filled with cultural references.
Today’s India is very different from Chaterjee’s portrayal but the book wears the crown of authencity and Agastya Sen’s (the protagonist) story is moving, entertaining and timeless. One can merit it an accolade that’s far harder to earn then authentic. It’s a classic.