‘If I wrote English, August today, it would be different’: author Upamanyu Chatterjee

The retired civil servant and author on how India has changed and on his new novel about an Italian monk, Lorenzo Searches for the Meaning of Life

Published - February 09, 2024 09:45 am IST

Author Upamanyu Chatterjee’s new novel ‘Lorenzo Searches for the Meaning of Life’ is based on a true story.

Author Upamanyu Chatterjee’s new novel ‘Lorenzo Searches for the Meaning of Life’ is based on a true story. | Photo Credit: R.V. Moorthy

Retired civil servant and author of nine books that include his famous debut novel English, August (1989), Upamanyu Chatterjee blazes a new trail with his latest, Lorenzo Searches for the Meaning of Life. It is a true story based on the life of Italian Fabrizio Senesi, an acquaintance of Chatterjee in Sri Lanka for the last few years. 

As he states in his foreword, “It is a true story, that is to say, like many true stories, it is a work of fiction.” At the core of this novel is Lorenzo Senesi, who, as a Benedictine monk, is on a spiritual quest to find the meaning of life. Chatterjee’s tour-de-force is his storytelling and imaginative prose combined with his trademark wit and attention to detail. Edited excerpts from a phone interview:

In conversation with author Upamanyu Chatterjee
| Video Credit: Niveditha Vasudevan | Reporting: Stanley Carvalho

How did this book about an Italian monk who travels to London and Bangladesh come about?

We stay in Colombo; this Italian was a neighbour over the last five to six years. I met him, he was eager, willing to have his story told by someone. When I learnt he was moving to Phnom Penh, I said why don’t we sit and write a book. 

What compelled you to tell the story of an ordinary man in search of life’s meaning?

Because it is very simple and interesting. It is also important. Here’s a man, in his early 20s, who begins to search. As I say in the end, life lived anti-clockwise, he seems to start at the wrong end, with a spiritual search rather than physical wandering. It is also life that is drawing him back. With children, his responsibilities increase, he cannot go his own way. Money, which never mattered to him, is needed to give his children a future. These simple, yet extremely important, issues in every life are in the book.

In the end, he is convinced and so am I that he is still a Benedictine at heart. He still has that quotation from the priest that a monk is what every human being should be. That’s what keeps him going. I thought that’s a fruitful, enriching way of looking at things.

You literally get into the skin of the protagonist, Lorenzo?

I am glad it worked. We did a lot of back and forth even after Fabrizio left Colombo. I bombarded him with questions and there was healthy cooperation between us. He saw the first and final drafts, suggested changes, and I accepted almost all of them.

So, the book is largely biographical. How much of it is fiction?

In essence, it is Fabrizio’s story; it is equally true I couldn’t bother him with delineation of minor characters, almost all minor characters are creators of fiction. Fabrizio was particular that I do not fictionalise too much. So, the central story is true to life with embellishments of fiction.

How easy or difficult was it to write of foreign locales sitting elsewhere?

It is possible if you have enough signposts to guide you — the weather, Wikipedia, Google Maps, and Fabrizio, with whom you could cross-check.

After three decades and eight books, you’ve gone beyond India-centric books. Is it a new phase in your literary journey?

No, I don’t think so. This book is truly exceptional. Bangladesh is a lot like India, feels a lot like home. Hopefully, if I write more books, they will be India-centric.

‘English, August’ and its sequel, ‘The Mammaries of Welfare State’, were a satire on India’s bureaucracy. Would you have escaped reprimand in today’s India?

English, August belongs to the 80s. Things have changed, the civil service itself has changed, small towns in India are not at all like Madna in the 80s, everything has changed. I’m not sure if English, August would work in 2024 because his [protagonist Agastya Sen] feeling of being out of place in his own country gives it its spurt. If I wrote it today, it would be a different book.

With more time post-retirement, can we expect books faster than the typical once in four or five years?

I’ve been very productive in Colombo; it is our sixth year and I’ve done three books. I must say, washing dishes and writing, there’s nothing else; it suits me fine, this life. 

How do you see contemporary Indian fiction in English?

You’re asking the wrong person. I’m still ill-read, I have a long list of books to read but haven’t yet read them. I haven’t read any contemporary Indian books recently. I’ve been reading all kinds of things connected with work-in-progress, I also read in Bengali to keep in touch. While I read a lot, I read slowly.

You’ve been compared with Rabelais, Swift, Heller. Have they influenced you?

That is not fair, these are giants. Catch-22 was and is still a Bible, and it is true that in my list of eternal books, Gulliver’s Travels will find a place. I don’t imitate anyone consciously but when you read something, that triggers off something in your head and off you go.

The interviewer is a Bengaluru-based independent journalist and writer.

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