july 19th, 2006
so the nytimes' reviewer thinks it's a classic. ROTFL. this is an eminently trivial work, in my personal opinion. the only english works of lasting value that have come out of india are 'midnight's children', 'the shadow lines', and 'a suitable boy', and the last is iffy, vikram seth's only really good book is 'the golden gate'. but no, this is not about literary criticism.
i personally thought 'english, august' was brechtian, something that (probably not intentionally) caused revulsion, bibhatsa, in the reader. but it does describe a species of 'indian' who gets a lot of visibility.
the title character is precisely the kind of 'brown saheb' who grew up in an elite household, went to elite schools (doon, lovedale, etc.), then to elite colleges (stephens, etc.) and then ended up as the self-proclaimed 'intelligentsia' of the country. they are a bit like the box-wallahs who used to grace the white-guy companies in old calcutta (according to vikram seth and also a wonderful work by ?tarashankar banerjee?, 'company, limited' made into a film by satyajit ray called i think, 'jana aranya').
these people are totally contemptuous of the 'real' india that they purport to understand. in point of fact, they wouldn't recognize the 'real' india if it were presented to them on a platter. when they come into contact with the 'real' india, they carefully avoid it, making sure not to make contact with it.
they live in delhi and bombay and calcutta, generally not bangalore or hyderabad or chennai.
they often dress in fabmart ethnic kurtas, have scruffy beards, and may carry a sling-bag. this is true of the women too (although the women have smaller beards, and wear giant one-rupee size bindis -- no, i shan't make any snide comments about target practice).
they often have connections with jawaharlal nehru university.
they usually have chinese or other 'handlers' who carefully groom them, although they are themselves unaware of the fact that they are being 'handled'.
they hang out at the india international center and the habitat center.
their biggest ambition is to bed a white woman/man.
they especially love the white foreign correspondents in delhi and their alcohol-sodden parties. they don't realize they look like, to a neutral observer, peter sellers in 'the party' -- gauche, out-of-place caricatures. (but then the foreign correspondents are not neutral, they despise india and these characters.)
they are often 'writers' who spew out an undigested mix of anti-nationalism, marxism and 'secularism'.
they write things that they believe -- and rightly so -- will make them popular with the ny times, the economist and other atlanticists.
they work with the lucrative NGO lords-of-poverty industry and receive gratuitously large salaries and do essentially no work while their handlers get what they need through them: national-security breaches, infiltration into economic policy etc.
they insinuate themselves into the award-doling-out cottage industry and eventually get magsaysay and suchlike awards.
they really hate NRIs, because most NRIs do not have such privileged backgrounds, have not gone to the elite schools, are not in awe of white people (having met some real-life white people in their natural habitats) and actually do some work for a living. these people, on the other hand, are happy to be parasites.
do you know someone who answers this description? fortunately, there are relatively few of them, but they do disproportionate damage.
a clue: look at those who put india down the most, and you'll find that they fit this to a T.
although the best example i can think of lives in london. (an exercise to the reader: figure out who this london resident is. i shall give no clues, and shall not say whether you have hit the bull's eye.)