February 21, 2020
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August In Winter

Agastya Sen returns, high on wit, but thin on plot

August In Winter
The Mammaries Of The Welfare State
By Upamanyu Chatterjee
Viking Rs : 395; Pages: 495
By the standing laws of the universe, Mammaries of the Welfare State should have been a hateful book: it's long and rambling, adolescently interested in sex, exhaustingly clever, loses the plot regularly, and says nothing new. But, and I say this with some sheepishness, it's not as bad a ride as you'd think.

One reason is that Upamanyu Chatterjee is one of the few no-holds-barred writers we've got who is as intelligent as he is playful. Not that he's above the odd cheap shot or pure slapstick; but for the most part his humour is killingly deadpan. The cover, featuring a goat's derriere and a heap of mouldering files—absurd, parodic, strangely aesthetic—does justice to the content. (That also goes for the unsubtle reference to piles.)

Plague has hit the district town of Madna, that paragon of nowheresville: everyone is falling over themselves trying to avoid a posting there, with no success at all. The Mammaries of the Welfare State meanders along 400-odd pages, examining the vagaries and machinations of the civil service and all its attendant barnacles in a time of crisis.

Most of the characters suckling at the wilting dugs of the welfare state do not pretend to have over two dimensions. Agastya Sen of English, August is back, eight years older, still doped and lonely, but he's only one of the many careening around the canvas. His love interest, the wanton Daya, stars in one florid sex scene and then fades into the wallpaper for hundreds of pages. The priapic Bhupen Raghupati, aroused by animal, vegetable and mineral but most by power, reigns over Madna as the Chief Revenue Divisional Commissioner. Gadflies like Bhootnath Gaitonde, starring Lefty leader, and A.C. Raichur, revolutionary at large, prod and poke the stolid flanks of the state machinery like fleas on a rhinoceros.

Chatterjee parodies the stupefying bureaucracy of the land relentlessly, with an edge of genuine anger. From excruciating letters in officialese and ridiculous acronyms for various departments (hubris and boobz) to the sloth and venality of everyone including Agastya, the novel rarely lets up. We get facts and figures, lists and questionnaires ad nauseum ranging from voting to the cost of a prime ministerial journey to the airport. Chatterjee rips up the system without pause, and with a flair that will make you laugh out loud.

But in a teeming canvas dedicated to having a spot of fun, good old plot suffers abominably. By the time you've gotten past the solemnly absurd names and titles, the minutely observed protocol, you're likely to have forgotten where you were in the story. Chatterjee's an excellent writer with a biting wit and manages to entertain but the novel is too long and many-faceted to hang together. Significant portions flag—not by virtue of being boringly written, but by virtue of dubious timing and relevance.

The Mammaries of the Welfare State blazes no trails, nor is it consistent; plenty of it is forced and irritating. None of it is likely to expand your horizons or touch mysterious chords. But if you're up for a laugh and a cathartic rant and rave, it'll do the trick.

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