English, August: An Indian Story by Upamanyu Chatterjee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Indecision will be your epitaph.
As the statement rung in my ear for more minutes than I cared to count, I stared at the mouth that just uttered it. No, it was not Agastya, the hero of this story but his best friend, Dhrubo, a brain-wracked, stoned, cajoled-to-distinguished young man who spent his time between perusing applications and criticising its submitters in an MNC bank in the megalopolitan city of Delhi. What light was he showing to Agastya, the young conqueror of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS as we call it), arguably the creamiest cadre one can land in this country? Apparently, the designations that elongate our names on our visiting cards belie the stark commonality in the ways we validate them.
Meet Agastya Sen. Or simple August (for the Sanskrit-naysayers). A 25-year-old-city-bred-booze-refuged-IAS-entrant-with-a-rural-posting lad. When he lands at Madna, a quintessential small town in the hinterland of rural boundaries, he takes the first bullet on his limbs when he stumbles upon things during his ride from the station to the guest house, witnessed hitherto only in documentary movies: broken roads, parched lands, dilapidated buildings, stripped walls and minimal civic sense. A second bullet lodges into his mind when he takes his first walk into the town: sparse shops, robbed hygiene, comatose wells, defeated fauna and more defeated people. But the third bullet, like the last nail in the coffin, pierces right into his heart upon meeting his department on the first day of reporting to office: comfortable postures, wrinkleless foreheads, carefree laughs, peaceful meals, nonchalant hearings and undaunted indifference.
The entire setup, like an ephemeral nightmare, leaves him with a restless mind. And who has ever conquered that? The atoms of thoughts that bang its surface with undiminished energy transport him to his relaxed, identifiable days in Delhi where along with his friends, he had swung cig-butts in the air and chortled while sucking at empty liquor bottles. He had luxuriated in his Uncle’s lush green gardens and ogled on a friend’s reckless fantasies. What the hell was he doing in Madna? What administrative overhaul can he bring to this town far beyond its expiry date? This alien space where the monsters looked like him in flesh but possessed the clandestine weapons to drive him mad with some acoustic buzzing of listless existence?
He decides to quit and return to where he belongs. But where does he belong?
How many times has it happened that a noxious smell turns aromatic upon discovering its source? How often have we changed our abhorrence to appreciation towards a dress upon knowing its presenter? How frequently a scurry of meaningless scribbling appears inspiring upon finding its writer? How often we gather meaning in bricks upon realizing the homes they have erected?
In Chatterjee’s exuberant, supremely humorous, soothingly lyrical and razor-sharp satirical recreation of a coming-of-age journey, one finds that a restless mind is one of the best gifts to have. This discoverer is so ardent in looking for coherence that, like a child scrapping balls of cream from a sandwiched biscuit, he slowly discerns delectable oxymorons of life: mordant humour, truncated ambitions, collective solitude, incomplete success, disturbing peace, refined crudity, contradicting togetherness, inactive thoughts and questionable beliefs. Agastya’s evaluation and re-evaluation of life encompasses the tools and revelations which in their omnipresence, accord a uniform identity to all humankind without compromising on their autonomy; much like how a disciplined military block appears on the march, each fighting their independent battles but deploying some common warfare and techniques for the larger objective of thumping victory over the enemy.
Whether Agastya finds his calling in the climax is immaterial because even this final stoppage can be considered only a temporary halt; a halt where his mental transistor catches fleeting signals from unknown territorial towers and continues the tinkering to assign them a spot on his list. This fever of restlessness defies all boundaries and cures and even a divine invocation can be of limited help.
The mind is restless, Krishna.
[Image courtesy http://www.goodmenproject.com ]