“The reason English, August was such a popular success probably has to do with the Indian Administrative Service,” Akhil Sharma pointed out in his introduction to an American edition of Upamanyu Chatterjee’s hit novel in 2006. “In India, to belong to the IAS is a little like being a movie star.” Far away in the US, writing for a foreign audience, Sharma may neither have known nor considered the importance of a new Indian novel whose success was also ascribed to its setting in an elite institution.

If this was indeed the burden that English, August had borne since 1988 when it was first published, the IIT campus novel Five Point Someone, which arrived in 2004, must have helped displace the weight. English, August satirised an elite bureaucracy’s unpreparedness for the rural encounter. Five Point Someone burst its seams with youthful enthusiasm at the prospect of entering the ruling classes. The India of Chatterjee’s novel was a horrible place – differently horrible in south Delhi from what it was in the fictional district of Madna, perhaps, but a bore through and through. By the time of Five Point Someone, the only reason to leave the motherland was because the parting was temporary, and paid a dollar stipend.

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Back to Madna

Chatterjee’s publishers have now reissued English, August on its 30th anniversary, with Sharma’s blithe American introduction attached. It appears not in Chatterjee’s universe, but in Chetan Bhagat’s; yet in its pages we travel back to an India where nothing much seems to have changed since 1947. Its English speakers, trying to domesticate a mean and sluggish land, have more in common with their white predecessors from the colonial civil service than with fellow citizens in the villages, who approach administrators like supplicants – “trembling black” supplicants, as we learn early on – in a durbar.

Agastya Sen lives in perpetual horror at the food and drink in Madna (the only thing that could have cut English, August shorter than a bottle of Digene would have been a Petromax stove in his room). His preoccupation with shit – and the likelihood of its appearance in his meals, made by local staff – is part of a boyish enjoyment of disgust. It is also in keeping with the upper-caste obsession with pollution, exacerbated by white repugnance for the lifestyle of the Empire’s dumb, dark-skinned subjects. Heat and dust, yes; but mostly filth and dirt.

Rural versus “megalopolitan”

It remains easy to imagine that little has changed, least of all the bureaucrat’s awesome power in districts as poor and poorly connected as Madna. Last year’s hit movie Newton, whose fictional geography partially overlaps with that of English, August, indicates how fundamentally ungovernable rural India still seems in the metropolitan (or “megalopolitan”, to use a word Agastya Sen loves) imagination. But Newton’s India is a conflict zone, alive and buzzing like the beehive to which Rahul Gandhi once compared it. Madna, through Agastya Sen’s eyes, is dead, its routine as soulless and empty as a battlefield after war – which, in a way, it is, because the civil services began as a form of conquest.

All this goes into a deadpan narrative, conceived with serene confidence. English, August’s cocky literary rhythms are as taut as they must have seemed in 1988. In many other respects, it reads like a book that’s arrived here in a time machine. Its extended bout of self-pity over the Indian inability to appreciate Sanskritised names seems quaint – India is now not only the land of Shyra and Shanaya, but also of Shaurya, Shivansh and Siddhiksha. (The luckless Agastya Sen has to explain his name to every clerk and tourist in Madna, whereas this writer has become aunt-in-name to two babies named thus in the last year alone.)

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Unthinkable material

English, August’s fixation with bodily functions may once have seemed quintessentially Indian; it now seems a symptom of the preponderance of delicately reared Bengali men, preoccupied with their digestion, in the Delhi publishing industry. Its obsession with the colour of women’s bras and the shape of their bums in jeans might only confirm to an Insta-storying teen that we, her ancestors from the late twentieth century, were not only creepy, but also repellently naive.

Its elision of rape into seduction would certainly convince this hypothetical teen that we had no morality worth speaking of. (After all, to paraphrase Virginia Woolf, on or about December 2012, Indian character changed.) More unfamiliar than all of these, however, would be English, August’s air of moody and persistent irony. It arrived in an age of nihilism; we live now in times of skin-thickening sincerity.

The dilemma of Agastya’s friend Dhrubo, who wants to give up his Citibank job for the IAS because of the “Occidental connection,” the lingering coloniality of his position, seems unthinkable as literary material now. Dhrubo is tired of being a cog in a conglomerate’s wheel, keeping up with the good old boys and their men in Hong Kong. A novelist today is less likely to be jealous of his employer’s “man in Hong Kong” than to be that man in Hong Kong.

A steady hand

There is no cause to lament. Agastya Sen meanders through his first deployment in Madna, but his author leads us through his adventures with the steady hand of a surveyor. Chatterjee was disgusted by the universe he wrote of and made no bones about it; the voice of English, August is as sharp as its 24-year-old protagonist is aimless and fuzzy-headed.

His images of Madna remain bracingly vivid: novels do not often venture, even thirty years later, into landscapes where entire main streets are lined with chemists, and missionary hospitals and ashrams offer a bright, clean visual reprieve from non-institutional living. It remains to be seen if a new generation of readers laugh at the jokes. English, August was first published in a time when the Indian novel in English was the subject of knock-down-drag-out fights over which language really represented (for a given value of “really” and “represented”) India. There is much in this book that will make the Indian reader feel unnervingly and accurately represented. The question of feeling understood remains, then as now, frustratingly separate.