English, August: An Indian Story. London, Faber, 1988.
The Last Burden. New Delhi, Viking, and London, Faber, 1993.* * *
The corpus of Upamanyu Chatterjee is not vast but his is a powerful emergent voice in Indian postcolonial literature. Thus far he has published "The Assassination of Indira Gandhi" in 1986 and two novels, English, August: An Indian Story in 1988 and The Last Burden in 1993. Critics have found Chatterjee difficult to categorize in that the protagonists—August in English, August and Jamun in The Last Burden —just drift with no apparent purpose in life. Reviews of English, August liken August to Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim as a portrayal of the angry young man. But such a comparison would thematically make August angrier, for this novel is focused on India's postcolonial condition and the necessity to decolonize.
English, August deals with August as a member of the Indian Administrative Service, a reincarnation of the Indian Civil Service, a behemoth left behind by the British to govern the country. A job in the IAS is highly sought after in postcolonial India; August, while appearing lackadaisical and self-centered and seeming to be its most inappropriate member, draws attention to a system which has become totally outmoded and out of touch with the needs of the Indian masses. Overtly, the novel attempts to do an expose of the IAS with its corruption and the tension which exists between the IAS officers representing the federal government and the state governments resulting in the victimization of the common people in the administrative nightmare in modern India.
Furthermore, there is a subtext of anger which is aimed not just at the IAS, but one which questions reality in India which is mediated by the English text or more particularly through Western eyes. For instance, watching Indian television, August makes references to Peyton Place and Waiting for Godot, which prompts his uncle to respond with "the first thing you are reminded of by something that happens around you, is something obscure and foreign, totally unrelated to the life and language around you." This particular theme pervades the novel and all the characters agree that postcolonial India is unreal, "a place of fantasy" and "confused metaphysics." To this extent, the IAS itself becomes a metaphor for India. Under the guise of decolonization, post-independence IAS once more reinscribes the colonial government as well as the profound sense of dislocation that a lot of Indians feel. Nationalism represented by the IAS can only be purchased by the homogenization of India and its people. The IAS and its policy of placing elite officers in locales and terrains they are unfamiliar with only goes further towards making it an inept administrative body, unable to cope with the intricacies of administering in a place and language alien to it. How can India/IAS decolonize then? August's only option is through taking a break from the IAS altogether.
If English, August is dark and bleak, The Last Burden comes to terms with and accepts such darkness. This novel of decolonization is truly "indigenous" in that its concern is not with India's relationship to the metropolitan centers but rather with middle-class life. It exposes the myth of the unity of the joint Hindu family (as opposed to the Western nuclear one) and its sense of duty, and dwells instead on the banality of urban life in India. The most striking aspect of this novel is the incredible language used by Chatterjee, which makes the reader oscillate between the beauty of the high serious prose and the ridiculous emotions that it covers. For instance, the novel is framed by the death of Jamun's mother. Upon being reprimanded at his demeanor and lack of sorrow at her impending death, Jamun retorts, "She isn't Indira Gandhi, you know, that we've to hurtle out into the streets and thwack our tits to voice our grief." Thus the chaos in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi's assassination is contextualized as hyperbole. Again, when Urmila dies, the doctor advises them to cremate the body, for the mourners "crack up, if after a few hours, the cadaver they're half-worshipping exudes the wispiest pong." Thus Chatterjee's use of language is effective on two counts. First, his code-switching and inscription of the banal and the slang defuses the hyperbole and exaggerated emotions associated with death. Death becomes real and a part of life and not a farce. In addition, his treatment of language forcibly inflects the Indian and indigenous within the language reserved for the English canon and its system of cultural assumptions.
With The Last Burden and the deliberate indigenization of English, Chatterjee finds a solution to the postcolonial anxiety articulated in English, August.