Upamanyu Chatterjee: A third follow-up to English, August is certainly overdue
At the just-concluded River Talks literature Festival in Guwahati, author Upamanyu Chatterjee was quizzed about his novel English, August and his writing
At the just-concluded River Talks literature Festival in Guwahati, author Upamanyu Chatterjee’s tongue stayed firmly in cheek. After describing himself as a rooster from Delhi (alluding to senior Assamese writer Arup Kumar Dutta’s previously made statement that writers could act like roosters) in his literally two-minute inaugural speech, he made moderating a challenge for editor/literary agent Preeti Gill and poet/scribe Monalisa Changkija with his ‘I can keep silent for days’ at a special session with him that followed.
To an opening mention by Preeti of his iconic first book, he said, "I’ve been asked before how autobiographical is English, August — what it means is, when I was in the district did I masturbate a lot? The answer is no."
To Monalisa’s confession that she was yet to read his books though she had bought them, he murmured at his driest, "Very kind of you."
Are Indian writers of English too verbose? Hmmm, he said, pointedly non-verbose. To another idle query he said he loved cooking. "My wife’s cooking is terrible. I relax reading cookbooks." At which point someone from the audience said he couldn’t be heard. "You are not missing much. Just talking about writing a verbose cookbook," was the very Upamanyu-like response.
Back to English, August, the wit in it. "I find the world a funny place, and particularly for English, August, it is plot-less. The reviews were cruel. Here is a character smoking dope and jerking off. An agent read it and asked why don’t not send him (August/Agastya) to a whorehouse... No publisher was interested. There was only some Vikas, bringing out geometry books then. English, August was published in 1988, it was doing the rounds in 1986."
"With a plot like this how would you convince the reader to turn the page? You tend to pack as many jokes as you can. That’s why the quality of humour in that book is..." Upamanyu made a clicking noise with his mouth, which could be interpreted as ‘kickass’ or a reluctance to self-praise.
"I used to wake at 5 am and write before going to office. I did it for 30 years. Now I wake at 8 am and do nothing. We don’t have TV. Everyone in the family reads, including my daughters. I still drive an Ambassador." Then in an aside, "It is a horrible car."
About his last book Fairytales at Fifty, described as dark by many, he said, "I have an ugly mind, what can I do? The opening section put off a potential agent – she said it was so violent she couldn’t finish the book! She is in the wrong profession. People are being beheaded on YouTube."
On writing it he said, "I read The Prince and the Pauper as a kid. It bothered me for years and years. It just kind of peters off, they switch roles, that’s it. That from someone who wrote Huckleberry Finn. It stayed in my head. Angulimal was of course... Hindi textbooks are so boring, this tale was the one not so boring."
Had he read any Northeast literature? "I didn’t know there’s a category like that. These kinds of categories should be eliminated. IWE (Indian writing in English) – what does it mean? EM Forster is clearly not IWE. Rushdie? Is it someone born here or has Indian parents?"
On a third sequel to English, August, after Mammaries of the Welfare State, which won him the Sahitya Akademi award in 2004: "It is certainly overdue. I promised myself a third one but I write very slowly. It is in the pipeline, God knows when."
Were editors scared of him? "Who cares about editors? If you’ve worked so hard at your prose, you don’t want anything changed."
How did the short story Othello Sucks come about? "When I read Othello the first time (I felt) it can be converted into a short story. The play is completely bonkers."
Did Bob Dylan deserve the Nobel for literature this year? "No." Then as an afterthought, "But who am I? The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind. I like him very much – as a singer. It’s his hairstyle." (Later on at the same festival, writer Ruskin Bond said the Nobel committee had put its foot in its mouth with the Dylan choice).
Author Jerry Pinto (from the front row) asked if he still wrote in longhand. "I am sorry, I still write longhand. Fountain pen. It gives me a sense of becoming modesty. I am not a laptop cat... I find it very relaxing (longhand). The last draft and then I use the computer. I am computer illiterate... I don’t want to know that."
To academician Rakhee Kalita’s more basic ‘what makes you write?’ he said, "How some people spend an hour doing puja. Or go for a run. I sit at this table, keep everything out. I may be doodling or daydreaming. It is like you shave or brush your teeth."
To someone’s ‘what is success?’ he scoffed, ‘This is what you ask management people. I have no idea. Thank god at my age I am not too bothered by it.’
The only point he agreed to be precise was about the books he liked: The Interpretations of Dreams by Freud and Moby Dick (Herman Melville). "Some books are extraordinary. But what I find extraordinary some people may not like. Literature is extremely personal."
Even with his mostly reticent responses, which was like pulling teeth, Upamanyu stayed in character, giving up only the most wry observations in a throwaway fashion, by default remaining the August in everyone's head till the end. An August whose self-deprecating slightly mocking tone still lives on his creator's tongue.