Saturday, June 11, 2011

Serio-comic Reflection

English, August: An Indian Story                    
 English, August: 
An Indian Story 
"Agastya? What kind of a name is Agastya?"
"He's a saint of the forest in the Ramayana, very ascetic.  He gives Ram a bow and arrow.  He's there in the Mahabharata, too.  He crosses the Vindyhas and stops them from growing."(p 9)

English, August is fundamentally a comedy, but I would rather call it a serio-comic reflection on a young Indian man of intelligence who exhibits, among other things, an ennui that permeates his actions and choices throughout the novel. It is the story of Agastya Sen, known to his friends by the English name, August, who is a member of the Indian elite, educated at Yale, and recently ensconced in a prize government job. It is a job which takes him to Madna, "the hottest town in India," deep in the rural countryside. Surrounded by an amalgam of neer-do-wells, bureaucrats and characters of various kinds that share only the common characteristic of being both annoying and of no interest to August he wonders what to do? While settling into a self-indulgent life that includes both pot and pleasing himself  incongruously he begins reading a combination of Marcus Aurelius and the Bhagavad Gita.
"In those months he grew to like immensely this wise sad Roman. Marcus immediately made him feel better, because Marcus seemed to have more problems than anyone else--not the soul-squashing problems of being poor, but the exhilarating abstract problems of one immersed wholly in his self."(p 80)
On the recommendation of one of his new acquaintances, who runs his father's hotel, he also begins to read the Gita.
"Thus, through happenstance, Agastaya could place the Bhagavad-Gita beside Marcus Aurelius on his shelf. . . Most passages were abstruse, but Agastaya was surprised by some:"(p 96)

Omnipresent throughout the novel was the ennui of this young man who had no direction in his life and no interest the profession that had been chosen for him by his father, prestige notwithstanding. August, on the contrary, after almost two hundred pages thinks:
"No emotion was sacredly his own, and he half-hoped that his restlessness would thus succumb to attrition. Perhaps his mind would finally realize that its disquietude was merely an index of its immaturity, as inevitable a sign of growing-up as the first emission of semen, as universal as excrement, and about as noteworthy."(p 195)
"At night he would lie awake and hear the clack of his uncle's typewriter and watch the dark shape of the bougainvillea outside the window, and see in its twists and turns a million things, but never his future."(p 197)

Yet this is a comic novel. One that is filled with humorous characters, recognizable to anyone familiar with bureaucracies. The omnipresent heat and fecundity of life demonstrated, to the consternation of August, in mosquitoes and animal feces, presents an unquestionable level of discomfort that is put to use for comic purposes. But the central irony is Agastya himself and that is no better illustrated than by the derivation of his name. His doctor's father shares this near the end of the story:
"Agam is mountain. Agastya could be agam plus asyat, one who pushes a mountain. Or agam plus styayati, one who stops a mountain. We often have this ambiguity, and uncertainty about our names, their origins."
There may also be a suggestion of Sisyphus in all this mountain-pushing business, but perhaps not. What is present is great irony when considering the life of this young dreamer of uncertain origins who is adrift in the heart of India near the start of a life that may merely drift off into the future.

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Nicki J Markus said...

Hi, James. Thank you for the comment on my blog. I am a new follower!

James said...

Thanks for your interest in my blog.

parrish lantern said...

This sounds a great book, by an author although I was aware I've not got around to reading, so another for the TBR.

James said...

Another great read recently republished by New York Review Books.