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A READING LIFE

Out of India, tales that edify, amuse

Each year around 2 million Indian people take the exam for entry into the Indian Administrative Service, the institution that replaced the British Indian Civil Service when India gained her independence, in 1947. The 2 million are competing for 80 openings. I came upon this staggering piece of information in Akhil Sharma's introduction to Upamanyu Chatterjee's ''English, August: An Indian Story" (New York Review Books, paperback, $14.95). The hero, so to speak, of this novel is 24-year-old Agastya Sen, also known variously as August, English, Ogu, and just plain Sen. He comes from a privileged family and is not in the least inclined to count his blessings. He has been sent for training as an IAS official to a (fictional) town called Madna, said to be the hottest in India. He has brought with him the essentials of his existence, his music tapes, his stash of marijuana, and his copy of Marcus Aurelius's ''Meditations." He boards in a wretched government guesthouse where he is savaged by mosquitoes and served food that tastes ''like warm chillied shampoo." As he eats, the caretaker hovers at the door, ''never failing to show something of himself . . . a shoulder, a shoe, a leg, and each portion of his body saying, There, I hope you continue to feel uneasy and strange." We would feel sorry for Agastya except that he has that covered: Basking in self-pity and aimlessness, he sets out to be contrary, incurious, and laggardly. He takes a perverse aesthetic pleasure in ugliness and disorder.

It would not please him to know it, I suppose, but Agastya has more than a little in common with the hero of John Kennedy Toole's ''A Confederacy of Dunces," in his egotistical alienation, his ancient self-help tome, his solitary sex, and, most amusingly, in his iconoclastic approach to administrative files. When he finally gets an official post and a high-tech chair (''one of those office things that swings at many angles in all directions"), he finds it exhausts all his energies to discover where he is meant to initial documents without even beginning to get involved in finding out what he is signing. So he initials away, throwing the files on the ground, where they land, ''depending on their weight, with dull thumps or sharp cracks." After each, he swings ''a complete round in his chair."

When not thinking solely of himself, Agastya occupies himself with such matters as whether ants have feet or whether his boss's cheeks ''would be soft if well-boiled and stewed." Or he simply revels in scenes of confusion: ''He watched Kumar direct a peon to place a huge drum of drinking water on a side table. The table collapsed with a quiet crack. The drum slid off, in slow motion as it were, and landed with a great dull thump on a rug. The water gurgled out happily and endlessly, like some secret source of a river." ''Well," he says to himself, ''your mood has certainly improved."

This is a very funny novel, but a humane one as well. The unattractiveness of the supercilious brat through whose eyes we observe immense poverty and filth lends poignancy to the people whose lives are immersed in these conditions, rather than making them the object of sport. Moreover, a terrible vengeance is wreaked on a friend, and Agastya glimpses the truth that acts, however desultory, have consequences.

It is no doubt a mark of my enduring hedonism when it comes to reading, but my favorite novel about India is still J. R. Ackerley's ''Hindoo Holiday" (New York Review Books, paperback, $14). Ackerley is funny, but the objects of his humor are Europeans as much as anyone. Evelyn Waugh characterized them perfectly in his review of ''Hindoo Holiday," saying one sees the English ''not as vulgar interlopers, not as heroic keepers of the King-Emperor's peace . . . but as absurd, otherworldly, will-o-the-wisps, floating in little misty companies about the landscape, futile, shy little creatures, half friendly, half suspicious, lurking like gnomes in their own bad places, a damp Celtic breath sighing in the powder-hot landscape of Asia."

Of course, by 1932, when ''Hindoo Holiday" was published, the British empire was in decline. The British of the Victorian Raj were infused with a good deal more purpose and spirit, though they, too, have been painted chiefly as either interlopers or heroes. David Gilmour sets the record straight in his splendidly detailed ''The Ruling Caste: Imperial Lives in the Victorian Raj" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $27). This is an extraordinarily evenhanded book about the Indian Civil Service and the work and lives of its members. Gilmour, also the author of excellent biographies of both Lord Curzon, viceroy of India, and Rudyard Kipling, has turned to the archives for his account. In drawing on journals and correspondence, he produces a glorious welter of fact and anecdote rather than a sustained analysis of how ''Civilians" (as the members of the ICS were called) really lived and worked. Happily, Gilmour is absent the air of dutifulness that sometimes afflicts the fair-minded. He has an amused appreciation of the elements of self-interest behind most noble schemes. For instance, when measures were taken to reform examinations to allow Indians into the ICS, they were not thoroughgoing enough to create a level playing field: ''The idea of competing fairly with a vastly more numerous subject population may have had democratic attractions," Gilmour observes, ''but it would have been a strange way to run an empire."

Above all, this is a book for snoopy people (like me) who can never get enough of the details of other people's lives, especially when they are lived in anomalous circumstances. I particularly rejoiced in such edifying snippets as the tale of William Henry Crowe, the district judge of Poona, whose intention to remain a bachelor was foiled when he ''became the target of a Colonel's widowed sister who ingratiated herself by pruning the creepers on his bungalow and, 'in spite of wearing bloomers to the scandal of Poona,' persuaded him to marry her."

Katherine A. Powers, a writer and critic, lives in Cambridge. Her column appears on alternate Sundays. She can be reached by e-mail at pow3@earthlink.net.

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