Publisher: Penguin Books
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Like wine that improves as it ages, Agastya’s 24 year old story is still widely read by the young and old and as expected, Agastya makes us smile as we turn the last page of his story. Upamanyu Chatterjee doesn’t disappoint with his insight of the life of a new IAS recruit, Agastya Sen, fondly called August by his friends.
This classic was first published in 1988 and the fact that it’s still in print proves that it is a well-written story that many of us can still relate to. It is a guide to the modern urban Indian. Though, Agastya himself is an Anglophile and the epitome of all “western” virtues such as laziness, vices etc., this story is uniquely Indian from the liberal use of slangs to the mockery of our society’s lackadaisical attitude.
Agastya doesn’t know what he wants from life. He had a sheltered upbringing in the city and grew up with Marcus Aurelius, Tagore and the Gita. He writes the IAS exams and joins the Civil Services as advised by his father but his mind is still a slave to the world of drugs, booze, literature and women. His one-year training programme in the remote town of Madna is a miserable ordeal. He finds his work tedious, his colleagues sycophantic and his new friends as incompetent. He thus retires to a cycle of stoning, boozing, freeloading, fantasizing and exercising to wile away his time. Also, he transforms into a pathological liar and spurts out unbelievable stories of his parents, non-existent wife and even the meaning of his name. The only time August takes up his responsibility is when he brings water to the drought-stricken region of Jampanna.
The story also offers insight into the lives of his friends Dhrubo and Neera.
In the story, Agastya’s mixed heritage is brought up many times – most of the time in a condescending sarcastic manner by his relatives and colleagues. Their insensitive remarks about his parentage is based on actual incidents that many youngsters of mixed parentage of that era had to face. Agastya often wishes that he had his Goan Catholic mother’s fair features and looked more “foreign” than he was.
Chatterjee’s satirical writing style peppered with lots of swear words, makes this book an interesting read. He boldly mocks at our fascination with foreign things – Tibetans and Anglo-Indians too- , our government officials and even at the fascination of foreigners with the India that was colonized by their grandparents. The presence of sexual innuendos and remarks in this story is a remarkably fresh concept for a story written in the late 80s when sex was a taboo topic in India – rural and urban.
This “coming of age” story is a fantastic read that brilliantly portrays the non-functioning of Indian institutions, the great chasm between the villages and the cities and the westernization of the world’s oldest civilization.