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Chatterjee, Upamanyu 1959-

Chatterjee, Upamanyu 1959-

PERSONAL:

Born 1959, in Patna, Bihar, India; married; children: two. Education: St. Stephens College, Delhi, India, graduated.

ADDRESSES:

Home—New Delhi, India.

CAREER:

Indian Administrative Service, officer in various regions of India, became chief officer of Bombay Slum Improvement Board, c. 1983—; freelance writer, 1986—.

AWARDS, HONORS:

Sahitya Akademi Award for writing in English, for Mammaries of the Welfare State.

WRITINGS:

FICTION

English, August: An Indian Story (novel), Faber (London, England), 1988, published with an introduction by Akhil Sharma, New York Review of Books (New York, NY), 2006.

The Last Burden (novel), Faber (London, England), 1993.

Mammaries of the Welfare State (novel; sequel to English, August: An Indian Story), Viking (New Delhi, India), 2000.

Weight Loss (novel), Viking (New Delhi, India), 2006.

Contributor of short stories to periodicals.

SIDELIGHTS:

Upamanyu Chatterjee is considered one of India's premiere contemporary novelists by several critics, even as he has retained his position as an officer in the Indian Administrative Service. His first novel, English, August: An Indian Story, takes on the bureaucracy of his employing institution as one of its major themes. Jamun, the protagonist of Chatterjee's 1993 effort, The Last Burden, also works in civil administration, but his position is not as consequential to the principal concept of the novel.

In English, August readers meet Agastya—or August, as his name is Anglicized. Boyd Tonkin reported in the London Observer that August is "a blasé young civil servant" whom the "elegant and gently mischievous satire follows … through a year in a rustic backwater as he strives to find a meaning to life beyond smoking joints and masturbation." According to Radhika Mohanram in her entry on Chatterjee for Contemporary Novelists: "August, while appearing lackadaisical and self-centered and seeming to be the [Indian Administrative Service's] most inappropriate member, draws attention to a system which has become totally outmoded and out of touch with the needs of the Indian masses." In the opinion of Times Literary Supplement critic Elaine Williams, August has better luck with his own personal journey than with his administrative career. The critic explained that Chatterjee's protagonist "decides to leave the civil service, to renounce security and privilege, and to return to the wisdom of his father, a practicing Hindu." Williams termed English, August "a remarkably mature first novel," while Adam Lively described the book in Punch as "beautifully written."

Some reviewers of Chatterjee's The Last Burden have noticed that several of its characters, including protagonist Jamun, are named after Indian sweetmeats. Jamun and his family are reunited on the occasion of his mother's heart attack, gathering around what will be her deathbed. Despite the solemnity of the occasion, Jamun, his brother Burfi, his Christian sister-in-law Joyce, and his father, Shyamanand, cannot refrain from arguing with each other. Though The Last Burden received positive critical notice, several reviewers commented upon Chatterjee's use of language in the novel, not all of them favorably. William Dalrymple charged in the Spectator that "Chatterjee can barely string a comprehensible sentence together," but Amit Chaudhuri argued in the Times Literary Supplement that "the peculiar American-English in which this book is written signifies the drifting, deracinated world of the Indian urban middle class to which the central character, Jamun, belongs; people in India who have grown up listening to rock music and reading comic books have recourse to no other language." Chaudhuri went on to applaud The Last Burden as a "remarkable, self-doubting, and humane novel," as well as "a nightmare shot through with tenderness." D.J. Taylor asserted in the New Statesman and Society that "where Chatterjee's prose fireworks succeed … they do so triumphantly."

Chatterjee returns to the characters from his debut novel with its sequel, Mammaries of the Welfare State. His next novel, Weight Loss, features sex-obsessed Bhola, whom the reader follows from his early teenage years to adulthood. Writing in the Hindu Business Line Online, Rasheeda Bhagat was little impressed with this fourth novel, relating that "Chatterjee's amazing ability to paint a graphic picture could have been a saviour, but unfortunately most of the time, what he evokes is the grotesque." Bhola's fantasies and actual exploits involve everyone from his male physical education teacher to husband and wife vegetable vendors and his landlady. Bhagat further noted: "Bhola's sexual fantasies and escapades leave you not only tired but also disgusted. A pity, because if the author had not got lost in crisscrossing Bhola's short life with the most obsessive and bizarre sexual peccadilloes, the book could have turned out to be something else." Speaking with Suchitra Behal in Hindu Online, Chatterjee explained that the main concerns of Weight Loss "revolve around the notion of a wasted life." Chatterjee further commented: "Bhola follows this degrading sensual life because the spiritual life is more difficult to follow. It's downhill all the way because he gives up the battle even before he starts."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

BOOKS

Contemporary Novelists, sixth edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996, pp. 191-192.

PERIODICALS

Entertainment Weekly, April 28, 2006, review of English, August: An Indian Story, p. 139.

Kirkus Reviews, March 1, 2006, review of English, August, p. 197.

New Statesman and Society, August 13, 1993, D.J. Taylor, review of The Last Burden, p. 39.

New York Times Book Review, July 2, 2006, Akash Kapur, review of English, August, p. 12.

Observer (London, England), June 12, 1988, Boyd Tonkin, review English, August, p. 43; August 22, 1993, review of The Last Burden, p. 47.

Publishers Weekly, February 20, 2006, review of English, August, p. 133.

Punch, June 17, 1988, Adam Lively, review of English, August, pp. 79-81.

Spectator, September 4, 1993, William Dalrymple, review of The Last Burden, pp. 32, 34.

Times Literary Supplement, July 15, 1988, Elaine Williams, review of English, August, p. 787; August 13, 1993, Amit Chaudhuri, review of The Last Burden, p. 18.

ONLINE

Hindu Business Line Online,http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/ (February 17, 2006), Rasheeda Bhagat, review of Weight Loss.

Hindu Online,http://www.hindu.com/ (February 19, 2006), Suchitra Behal, "Two Separate Selves."

PEN American Center Web site,http://www.pen.org/ (March 19, 2007), "Upamanyu Chatterjee."

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