Friday, July 08, 2005

ogu, agatsya....

how often do we come across novels that place us in the role of the protagonist? how often does life seem complex before u start a novel and by the time u finish it, u feel good, not bcos ure problems have vanished, but cos u see so many ppl around u who go thru the same deal , in fact a novel dedicated to its cause.

at least English, August is one.

the title's a bit weird, yes, but fear not cos these r just names of the same character, our kid-around-the block protagonist, Agatsya Sen. Ogu, agatsya, English, August...all are his names at different times in his life....

Now this guy's just like us bcos of lines like these...

" Anchorlessness- that was to be one of his chaotic concerns in that uncertain year; battling a sense of waste was to be another. other fodder too , in the farrago of his mind, self-pity in an uncongenial clime, the incertitutde of his reactions in Madna, his job, and his inability to relate to it- other abstractions too, his niche in the world,his future, the elusive mocking nature of happiness, the possibility of its attainment."

He goes about his life unlike most ppl, cos he doesnt crib. at least not in public. Its almost like he just goes thru the motions of being the rong guy at the rong place, and the only reason he goes thru it is the lack of any other option. We would see ppl kill for a job he has, but somehow he personifies the Gen X mentality of really not wanting any of the responsibility of being a collector, bcos he knows he is a part of a decaying system that is too deep in the red for any retribution.

" I live in anarchy. And this place is a continent ( Madna is a place in the middle of nowhere where august has been posted as an IAS officer), far too hetergenous. Great Literature has to have its regional tang- a great Tamil story, for instance whose real greatness would be ultimately obscure to any non-tamilian. Havent you felt that hetergeneity in Madna? asked Sathe. " i presume you know at least three indian languages, english, hindi, and bengali, yet you find it so difficult to communicate here. And three languages you could be masters of europe"

We see India in totally different light, bcos we have grown up tilting our heads westwards. We seem to have forgotten India that is out there in places like Madna, bcos really noone cares a damn about such places. The system is there, bcos it has to. You will find ppl totally worthless in places of importance, bcos the next guy is even worse. Some take pride in being worthless, some just dont care. This feeling is evident throughout the book, bcos of the callousness of the ppl there, noone really feels much for anythin.

For authors like Rushdie this would have been an ideal setting for a tragic lost indian cause. He would have rolled in the depth of the archaic language he uses, and made a feast out of the situation. But Upamanyu Chatterjee takes this setting much lighter. He sees humour arising from indifference, and how any of us city-bred folks would think in such situations.

Mrs Srivastav was one kind of wife to a collector; their further studies depended entirely on where their husbands were posted. while the husband worked, the wife gathered degrees from the sad colleges of the small towns. It was not easy to refuse admission or a degree to the wife of a collector even if their previous degrees were from places that the principal of the college was not sure existed. Indeed he was hardly bothered by these petty matters knowing fully well that these earlier colleges could not be worse than his own. But these wives used their degrees well, for brandishing them with pride, they return to these colleges to teach the rubbish they had learnt.

The characters are beautifully sketched out, I mean you can feel the persona of every character in this book, and if you were in india at some point in ure life, and have dealt with the bureaucracy, ull see the faces of these characters in an instant. The fat-scowling Srivastav, the lazy Shankar, the Mrs. Srivastav, the Kumars, the Gandhis.....the whole package. I was actually laughing at some of the writings and the dialogues Chatterjee has penned down bcos it seemed so real, it seemed like someone had been with me when I interacted with college staff or the driving license office or any other government institution. Words like,

The Collector was still shrieking, dehydrating his throat and drinking lots of water. Most heads were still down and some seemed to be swaying with sleep. Everyone looked more hot and tired. The collectorate hall was large and shabby, with pigeons on the ventilators and portraits on the walls. Gandhi, Tagore, Nehru, Tilak and a Tamsevian ( Tamse was the official artist of the district) mutilation of what could have been Sarojini Naidu or a turbanless C.V.Raman. All the seats directly under the fans had been taken by soft middle aged men. An Orange standing fan, terribly new had been placed behind the collector's chair.

The story develops in this setting, when you could ask, Hey but he asked for a life like this. Noone asked him to get into the IAS. True. But there are some references to life in the cities, where u would have to commute standing for hours like there was no tomorrow, or working for MNCs where you dont know why you are doing whatever it is ure. Life abroad, also gets a mention, on how the loneliness got to u and how miserable u could get. So you would have to understand that this isnt about being in the middle of nowhere, but its about having a quarter-life crisis and dealing with it. Its about being in the middle of nowhere in ure life.

Another very well etched out character is Vasant, his cook at the rest house in Madna. Some words,

and in a perverse way, Vasant's food was exciting, full of hazards concocted to unsettle boredom. So was his ostensibly boiled water.'Let the water begin to boil, then let the water remain on the fire, boiling , for about ten minutes, and then switch off the gas. Boiling for ten minutes means counting ten minutes after the water begins to boil, not leaving the water on the gas for ten minutes. he said these words to Vasant , slowly and carefully, as to an obstinate and demented child, almost everyday, but in all those months he was never sure whether the water he drank was really boiled. Whenever Vasant brought a jug he would ask, Is it boiled? and Vasant would nod, sometimes dip his finger and say It is hot. Defeated and amused August solved his doubt by drinking water wherever he went.

Once, out of boredom, he wanted to go to the kitchen to demonstrate the boiling of water for drinking, he couldnt. Vasant at first didnt understand, and then he seemed to pretend not to. Then he nodded his head vigorously , closing his eyes with each nod, and moved away. August went after him, but Vasant stopped him with an outstretched arm and an open Buddha like palm. Vasant returned with a kerosene stove which he placed on the verandah floor. August said, yes yes, and sent him away thinking, Maybe he doesnt want me to see his kitchen, the mire out of which my meals emerge.

and lunch which was really a second breakfast also had its contingent perils, but they were sometimes as engrossing as a sunday paper chess problem. Once, while bringing the tray in vasant stumbled and upset the milk all over the rest of the food. He put the tray down on the table. August retrieved the slices of potato and tomato from the milk.

"Ill go and get another glass of milk"

" Here take the tray with u" Vasant picked up, a plate of milk in a tray of milk. He returned after a few minutes with a glass of hot milk with black dots in it. Whats that? asked august

Tea leaves said vasant and removed it with his left index finger. it could have been pepper from the potato, august suspected that vasant had just filled another glass from the milk in the tray. He himself would have done that. Then his cerebrations began. but the milk was hot. Well, Vasant had just heated it again. Perhaps I should ask him again. But if the milk is actually fresh, and a few tea leaves in it, then my suspicion would offend him. And give him ideas. He cooks ure food. he could make u eat anything!

Something that impressed me was how the problem, I think the perfect word would be, conundrum, that we Indians face emerged as you keep reading the book. Its like the system was archaic in following a British era long gone, that even brits dont seem to understand the significance of following such a system. In the book, there is an English visitor to Madna, Mr. Avery who came there to visit the grave of his grandfather who used to be the collector of Madna during the days of the Raj. But he is instantly disappointed on seeing the state of town. It was as if time stood still.

The conundrum i mentioned above seemed to be how misplaced we are. We are taught Wordsworth and Keats in school, but how does it matter anyway? And learning anythin in Hindi would mean a place nowhere in the western world. This was what Chatterjee mentions when he writes about the following,

Dr. Prem kishen of Meerut University has written a book on E,M. Forster, India's darling Englishman, most of us seem to be so grateful that he wrote that novel about India. Dr Prem Kishen holds a Phd On Jane Austen from Meerut Univ. What is Jane Austen doing in Meerut?....

or Macbeth in Ulhasnagar and Wordsworth in Azamganj....

What is some Jat teenager in Meerut reading Jane Austen? Only because the Prem Kishens of the country need a place where they can teach all this rubbish?

Its very true, about us being totally confused. But we dont do anything out of the ordinary during these chaotic years and get through quite fine, only to put another generation through the same questions that we were once unable to answer.

The novel ends just as it started, with questions pouring out of August's mind. These final lines sum of the whole book,

Today I have got myself out of all my perplexities; or rather , I have got the perplexities out of myself- for they were not without, but within; they lay in my own outlook.


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