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Meet the `August' babu

Upamanyu Chatterjee was in town to introduce his forthcoming novel, reports ANJANA RAJAN

Surely there's a difference between "English, August" and the Reserve Bank Report Upamanyu Chatterjee


NOVEL APPROACH: Upamanyu Chatterjee prior to addressing his audience.

It is tempting to call him August Upamanyu. Certainly, Upamanyu Chatterjee, the celebrated author of "English, August" and other novels, does not show the same flair for conversation as he does for the written word.

In New Delhi for a Meet the Author session, the Sahitya Akademi award winner appears uncomfortable in the crowd of elderly fans, some of whom profusely congratulate him on his writings and profess to have read every novel.

"The average age here seems to be 90," he mutters unhappily, scanning the crowd at the India International Centre with disdainful hyperbole.

What seems to alarm Chatterjee, another of the illustrious alumni produced by Delhi University's St. Stephen's College, is that the passage he has chosen to read out at the meet is quite "obscene" and may not go down well with old folks.

Perhaps he should not be surprised at the number of silver heads in his audience. With prose of the kind that is not the easiest to get through without a dictionary close at hand, his readers need to be either devoted to reading, to the author or to passing the time of day. Today's youngsters, forever in competition for marks or jobs or promotions, and perhaps indulging in the odd puff of marijuana or other private pastimes as does Agastya (August) - the protagonist of "English, August" and its sequel "Mammaries of the Welfare State" - might indeed have read his books.

They would not necessarily come thronging to an event organised by the Sahitya Akademi and the India International Centre, two institutions more linked with the derelict or venerable than the young and happening. Then again, Chatterjee's reaction points to the usefulness of such programmes, where writers and their readers come face to face.

New novel

Introducing his forthcoming novel, "Weight Loss", to be published by Penguin by the end of 2005, he describes the protagonist, Bhola, as a boy with a penchant for falling in love with unlikely partners. "Were one to be kind, one would say he loves the world."

The extract elicits no adverse reactions, despite the author's offer, "Those who of you who find the passage obscene can signal your disapproval by letting your mobile phones ring louder than ever."

Exemplifying his wry wit, the remark conveys his hesitation, a semblance of an apology as well as an indictment of people who never manage to put their cell phones on silent mode.

Apart from the explicit descriptions considered vulgar by many, Chatterjee has been criticised for a wordy style bordering on the boring. But perhaps a more significant criticism is the cynicism his novels evoke. Young Indians reading his take on the Indian Administrative Service would not be inspired to join, while the elders would either laugh or empathise. Yet Chatterjee, a serving IAS officer, explains this is just the "ballast", a background for a novel that is actually "about growing up" and not intended primarily as a satire.

As a writer of fiction he might say it is not his job to provide inspiration, but, a reader does ask him whether in his writings, which include short stories and three novels, he has ever created a character able to escape from a meaningless to a meaningful life. The answer is, "No, not yet."

To a question from the audience about his definition of creativity, he replies, "Well, I doubt there can be a hard and fast definition." Pressed to compare creative writing with say, journalism, he escapes with, "Surely there's a difference between `English, August' and the Reserve Bank Report." Witty again, but disappointingly arrogant. Hardly respectful of the care with which his readers follow his works.

Upamanyu Chatterjee, like the babus he has parodied more than once in his writings, seems to have cultivated condescension - the half attention, the irritated impatience - to keep his interlocutor at bay, not quite dismissed, not quite worthy of his consideration, desperately dangling from a thread of self respect.

Where can one place someone with an upper lip so stiff he has to ration his smiles? Surely it is not "The Last Burden" to carry for a journalist.

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