‘English, August: An Indian Story,’ by Upamanyu Chatterjee A specter haunts Indian writing — the specter of authenticity. In the pages of magazines and journals, at soirées and (sparsely attended) book parties in New Delhi, literature is being judged by a specious metric of cultural and national loyalty. According to this standard, it is in the work of writers who live in India and write in an Indian language (and thus have trouble finding a Western publisher), and not, to quote one critic, in sell-out “export-quality prose,” that the country’s authentic voice is to be found.
Upamanyu Chatterjee’s “English, August,” was first published in India in 1988. The story of a young civil servant posted to a fictional rural town, it was hailed as the country’s “Catcher in the Rye” — a novel that captured the zeitgeist of the 1980’s, when India was uncertainly emerging from decades of economic isolation and ill-conceived socialism. Now, nearly two decades later, “English, August” is at last being published in America. The long wait, and the fact that, although Chatterjee writes in English, he still works and lives in India, confer a certain legitimacy upon his book. In a market dominated by cosmopolitan authors and fusion prose, “English, August” is being presented, in the words of one admirer, as “the ‘Indianest’ novel in English that I know of.”