2014, in review

The title’s punny, get it?

Jokes apart, 2014 was a good year. Much work was ignored and many responsibilities shirked to ensure that quality time was spent with novels. Didn’t get to read as much as I would have liked, though.

English, August- Upamanyu Chatterjee

I’d vaguely heard of this book, years ago, but I’d forgotten where. When it turned up on my Goodreads feed this year, I was surprised that it was written by a desi author. The name suggested an old, colonial school story or a heavy English Lit type of book. Which is ironic, because that’s exactly what the novel is not about.

Agastya Sen is a twenty-something college graduate who has just qualified the Civil Services examination and has been given his first posting in the tiny-dot-on-the-map town of Madna. He’s an a city boy, educated in convents and who can quote Shakespeare like… well, Shakespeare. “He’s the sort who’d love to get AIDS just because it’s raging in America,” is his snarky comment on a former classmate, but he anglicizes his name to August, and speaks a Hinglish hybrid while sipping Coca Cola. His initial homesickness is followed by culture shock after culture shock as he learns to handle the local babus and keep himself occupied and sane in a new town. This gives way to dissatisfaction with the path he has chosen.

Though this book was written before I was born, I still found that I could relate to many of Agastya’s woes. When I first started working (in a private company, far from the government service described in the book), I had the same feeling of being a fish out of water. Every person I met seemed like a convenient caricature that fit in with mainstream stereotypes- the sarcastic, demanding manager; the brilliant but lazy techies; the ebullient and talkative director. It seemed unreal for months, until I began to learn more about the personalities behind the cartoons. In the same way, Agastya discovers some kindred spirits among the civil servants of Madna.

I laughed as Agastya learned the power of emotional blackmail, and cringed when I realized that I would have done the same to get myself out of eating mess food. When his friend dissuades him from resigning from his post with the argument that taking time off “to find oneself” is a typically first-world thing to do, I wondered if Upamanyu Chatterjee had read my mind. In today’s rat race, surely Agastya isn’t the only young person to wonder if they’ve let themselves be swept along by herd mentality without questioning conventional ‘wisdom’. And the philosophy, masturbation, marijuana- which college student hasn’t gone through those phases?

I think, though, that his feeling of displacement would have struck a chord with me four years ago when I moved from a huge bustling city to a small town. It’s a pity I only discovered it now.

5/5. Beats Chetan Bhagat hollow.

Upamanyu Chatterjee has written another book, too, called The Mammaries of the Welfare State. It’s been on my to-read list for a while now, but has proved to be elusive. Hope it’s worth the hunt.

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