Exploring Identity and Individuality in Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English, August and Rupa Bajwa’s The Sari Shop

KBS Krishna

Central University of Himachal Pradesh, Dharamshala

Volume 8, Number 1, 2016 I Full Text PDF


Identity becomes a problematic issue, especially in the modern era, where it clashes with individuality. The failure to fit into categories prescribed by societies leads to crisis of identity. This crisis is experienced by people of all classes. The article looks at two Indian novels in English – Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English, August and Rupa Bajwa’s The Sari Shop, where a civil servant and a shop attendant struggle to discover their identity in a world where divisions are watertight.

 Keywords: Identity, Individuality, Individualism, English August, The Sari Shop

Identity and individuality are not necessarily mutually exclusive; however, in cultures such as India with their penchant for classifying citizens on the basis of caste, creed, gender, religion, region, race, etc…, often the two are at odds leading to nagging doubts of self-worth in many and identity crisis angst in a few. The paper proposes to study two novels (belonging to the ever-growing canon of Indian Writing in English) to bring out how such anguish is not limited by class, culture, or even education. The two novels under purview are Upamanyu Chaudhary’s (b.1959) English, August (1988) and Rupa Bajwa’s (b.1976) The Sari Shop (2004). However, it is not as if these are the only works that have dealt with or delineated this problem: Works ranging from the first Indian novel in English, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s (1838-1894) Rajmohan’s Wife (1864) to recent works of fiction such as Jerry Pinto’s (b. 1966) Em and the Big Hoom (2012) have portrayed this. The novels analysed for this paper are chosen not only for their moving portrayal of the torment faced by the protagonists due to identity issues but also due to the wide chasm that divides the protagonists. Hence, the depiction of this problem is suggestive of a far deeper malaise inextricably interwoven into the cultural fabric. While identity crisis is not a current issue, modernity has brought its own set of issues that have a bearing upon one’s self-identity. An integral characteristic of modernity is globalisation, which “in one form or another, is impacting on the lives of everyone on the planet, whatever their age, class, ethnicity, gender or whenever they live” (Beynon and Dunkerly, 1979, p.3).

Chatterjee’s Agastya Sen is a civil servant, who struggles to come to terms with his rural environment, after being distanced from his familiar urban roots. From the very beginning of the novel, Chatterjee shows how the protagonist is not able to relate to or identify himself with his surroundings. The problem starts with Agastya’s name itself. Agastya is not comfortable with being called by his name; and his friends, relatives, and others call him either Agastya, or August, or Ogu, or English, depending on how they perceive him. While a few persist in calling him by his given name, and even take offence at the fact that the protagonist does not have adequate respect for a revered name from Hindu mythology, others give him various nicknames, or include his profession as a part of his name.

The protagonist’s name is significant as it is not just a name that is at question here. While Agastya harkens back to Hindu mythology, August seems to refer to Augustus Caesar, the Roman emperor. So, while the protagonist ala Shakespeare’s Romeo probably believes that ‘a rose by any other name would smell as sweet’ (p.912), the readers and the other characters in the novel do not think of it in the same manner.

This is because names suggest identity: They hint at one’s religion, creed, and even gender, in most instances. Agastya being indifferent to what he is called is a symptom of a deeper sense of rootlessness.

Early in the novel, Chatterjee points this out when he stresses that August wanted to be an Anglo-Indian. The protagonist’s communication, bearing, and desires, make him the butt of ridicule in his school days as his classmates could sense that he did not want to be what he is. Even in his childhood, August desired to be an Anglo-Indian rather than an Indian. He ‘[…] wished he had been Anglo-Indian, that he had Keith or Alan for a name, that he spoke English with their accent’ (Chatterjee, p.2).

            The identity that this would provide him with is what he wanted. However, what identity does an Anglo-Indian have? An Anglo-Indian, by definition, is an Englishman who is born and brought up in India. However, an Anglo-Indian cannot be one of the aborigines, and similarly cannot be an Englishman either. Hence, Anglo-Indians, are generally neither at home in the country of their birth (that is India), or the country that they seem to belong to due to their race (that is England).

August by desiring such an identity shows that he wants to fall between what Chatterjee says are two stools. August wants to be something like Ruskin Bond’s (b.1934) Rusty in A Room on the Roof (1955). While Rusty is an Anglo-Indian and suffers from identity crisis because of that very reason, August, rather weirdly, desires such an identity.

This desire for an identity that does not anchor itself to a tangible and well-defined category can even be seen in August’s attitude towards religion. August on his trip to a temple along with his associates at Madna, is not able to relate with the poojas being performed by the women. When Mohan blasphemously compares the pooja performed in a Shiva temple to a pornographic film (Chatterjee, pp. 127-28), August is not offended at his friend’s words as he himself felt that the pooja was a weird experience:

There was a tube-light in the innermost sanctum directly above the black stone phallus of Shiv. There the wives came into their own.

They took turns to gently smear the shivaling with sandalwood paste, sprinkle water and flowers over it, prostrate and pray before it, suffocate it with incense, kiss their fingers after touching it. Agastya found the scene extraordinarily kinky. (p. 128)

But August is oblivious that he is being sacrilegious by having such thoughts due to his upbringing, which did not stress either on religion or worship.

Religion was with him a remote concern, and with his father it had never descended from the metaphysical. […]. Yet he [Agastya’s father] had wanted his son to be a Hindu, for which his arguments had seemed sophistic. He had said that it would make the least demands on his time. ‘You can think and do what you like and still remain a Hindu.’ Consequently Agastya had rarely been to a temple…. (p. 128)

            In, not only his attitude towards religion but also in, his attitude towards gender and profession August shows a certain lack of belonging. This is apparent when we see that he can joke about his gender. In his conversation with Bhatia, he speaks jocularly about suicide and gender transformation:

There are many indigenous methods of suicide. You could change sex, kill your husband if he doesn’t die on his own, and burn yourself on his pyre, but I think Sati (Suttee to you) is prohibited — they’ve killed a great Indian tradition, but there is a new one in its place — you could change sex and marry, and get your husband to burn you — the ultimate kink experience. (p. 77)

            August’s attitude towards gender as he points out how changing one’s gender can lead to a kinky experience display not just an eccentric desire for entertainment, but also a sense of being uncomfortable with gender-based identity. This dialogue with Bhatia also reveals the bleak outlook that he has towards life, as August can only think of a husband and wife relationship as a game of one-upmanship where either the husband murders the wife, or vice-versa. Further, the fact that August jokes about suicide reveals that it is present in his subconscious, suggestive of frustration and depression…Full Text PDF

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