Man and Destiny in Upmanyu’s English August
Abstract: The present paper proposes to undertake a brief study of ‘Man and Destiny in Upmanyu’s English August: An Indian Story. How far does the IAS system succeed in moulding the destiny of the protagonist of the novel? How does the protagonist of the novel represent the contemporary youth in their attitude towards life and destiny? And is this novel a frank discussion of the predicament in which an intelligent and educated modern youth finds himself? These are some vital questions that will be examined in this paper.
No doubt the earth is turning into wasteland. Recent scientific experiments and discoveries have disturbed and damaged the natural relation of beings to their surrounding. Everywhere there are hazards which have raised fresh questions concerning man’s creative genius and his destiny. They have posed threats to the very future of life on our planet. Now the greatest problem of our time is, how to save mankind from annihilation, and how to restore natural order of things?
Well, from ancient times all the branches of knowledge have been studying the issue ‘man and his destiny’. But still it is an enigma which man needs to probe. It is not only the concern of the individual and the nation but of the whole humanity.
Indo-Anglican novelists like Anita Desai, Arun Joshi, Amitav Ghosh and Upmanyu Chatterjee and many others try time and again to present and tackle the above mentioned enigma in their works. It may not be possible within the limits of this paper to analyse all these works and the focus is on Upmanyu Chatterjee’s English August: An Indian Story.
The protagonist of the novel, Agastya Sen, who has just joined the IAS, is posted to a remote place called Madna. He is completely disillusioned here. He feels lonely and succumbs to the temptation of drugs, smoking and masturbation. The problem of indecision ‘to be’ or ‘not to be’ which confronted William Shakespeare’s Hamlet four centuries ago, now becomes the problem of young IAS, Agastya Sen: ‘May be yes , may be no, may be I don’t know-that is my answer’.1
The family background and the society play important role in moulding Agastya Sen’s destiny. In the post Independence era, to be an IAS officer was a matter of pride. In the case of Agastya Sen it was his family members who were more interested in his becoming an IAS rather than he himself. Thus from the very beginning of the novel the inner urge which is the very basic motif for any success seems to be absent. Agastya Sen was born in an aristocratic family in Calcutta. He always looked for comfort and easy life and was unable to cope with the realies and hardships of life. It was very evident during his stay at Madna. He found it difficult to eat the food prepared by Vasant, the cook at the Rest House. He says, ‘Dinner was unbelievable, the dal tasted like lukewarm chillied shampoo.’2
Agastya Sen took his training at Madna in a very casual manner, without assuming any great responsibility or showing any interest. On the first day of his arrival at Madna, Srivastava had told Agastya, ‘OK, relax after lunch, no need to rush things. You take a few days to get used to the heat’.3 To escape from the drudgery of the office became his habit. He has no interest in officer’s meeting. He pretends to be seek but he foresees the danger that srivastava might visit him and ‘might catch him masturbating or smoking a joint or both’.4 One of the serious problems of youth like Agastya today is to lead a life of non-commitment, to refuse any responsibility both for self and for others. It can be very detrimental to the progress and development of both the self and the nation.
Another serious problem is drug addiction. It hampers the personality, the dignity as well as the destiny of both the individual and the nation. Agastya Sen picked up this habit during his college days. This habit persisted when he proceeded to Madna and later on it became almost a passion. Besides taking drugs and smoking this young IAS, Agastya, also cultivated the habit of drinking.
Agastya got into the habit of masturbation. Isn’t it pitiable? It is a bestial action whereby man seeks his own self gratification and prevents the purpose of sex. Not even twenty four hours were over after his arrival in Madna where he began to feel lonely, bewildered and unhinged. He lay on the bed and felt, ‘He could masturbate, but without enjoyment. What is it? He asked himself again. It is because it ia a new place? Yes. So do I miss the urban life? Yes. It is a new job? Yes. The job is both bewildering and boring.5 After a while a logical thought prevailed and he says, ‘From today no masturbation. Test your will, you bastard’.6 If an IAS officer lowers himself to this mean level, what would be his destiny and the destiny of those entrusted to his care and responsibility?
Sex was yet another area which reveals his personality. During his college days he was called ‘Dingo’, an expert in the art of chasing and attracting fair sex. On the secong day of his arrival at Madna, Agastya went to collector’s house for dinner and this was his feeling, ‘Mrs. Srivastava was fat, friendly and surpassing sexy. Throughout the evening Agastya kept looking at her thighs. He thought he saw her marriage perfectly’.7 On an occasion he accompanied the English man Avery and his would be wife Sita to Jompana. Sita sat next to him in the jeep and after a while when she dozed off and leaned her head on his shoulder, he felt elevated. Once Para, a tribal woman, ‘bent down to place his tea beside him, he saw the veins blue beneath the skin on the inside of her upper arm’.8
During the British Raj the ICS was the back bone of its existence, functioning and success. Later on its mantle was laid on the IAS and it was expected to meet the new challenges of free India and to give a new direction to the country. In other words, its role was to guide the destiny of our nation and to take it the heights of peace, progress and prosperity without sacrificing the dignity and freedom of the individual. But it demanded from the IAS intelligence, moral integrity and dedication to the cause of the nation. English August deals with a decline in its standards and functioning. It deals with the corruption in high places, high handedness, inefficiency, the oppression of the system, the utter indifference of the administration to the eradication of the social evils, the acute class consciousness among the IAS hierarchy, the little snobberies and petty jealousies. One can notice here now the corruption is encouraged and protected by higher officials. They do nothing but waste time, money and energy. Punctuality has no value for them. There is no work culture in government offices. Hence what progress can we expect? What would be our destiny?
Having examined Agastya’s character one can draw the necessary conclusions. The office of an IAS is very important. He can either make or mar the nation. The evils that have been pointed out need to be eradicated and a freshness of outlook needs to generated.
Agastya stands for a degenerated IAS officer. He has nothing to with the development of the individual and the nation. He is escapist, sentimental towards nature, job and life. He is unsatisfied and unprepared for the job. He is not unable but he doesn’t have the desire or will to do it. He is lazy and wants to escape from the reality. So he gives himself to self indulgence and self gratification through music, drugs, smoking, drinking and masturbation. Thus he lives for the moment, momentary pleasure and does not look beyond.
Individual’s destiny is tied up with the destiny of the nation. For India the IAS was a peak of human destiny. The IAS was to achieve our destiny, and an IAS officer was to achieve his own destiny by achieving the destiny of the nation and of mankind. They are interdependent and complementary to one another in achieving peace, progress and prosperity. But is it possible through the character like Agastya Sen? The answer will be negative.
In fact, to achieve success in life one needs to have the spirit of sacrifice and detachment, but a better way would be to sacrifice one’s own life and energy to make other people’s life better. To attain the destiny one needs to go beyond oneself, and for this, one needs the outside source namely the spiritual strength, inspiration and guidance. By relying on oneself one can’t achieve one’s destiny- whether it is an individual or a country, both needs to go beyond themselves.
1. Upmanyu Chatterjee, English August: An Indian Story, London: Faber and Faber Ltd., 1988; New Delhi: Rupa & Co., 1994, p. 158. (Hereafter all the quotations have taken from this edition)
2. Ibid., p. 6.
3. Ibid., p. 26.
4. Ibid., p. 219
5. Ibid., p. 27
6. Ibid., p. 27
7. Ibid., p. 53
8. Ibid., p. 258