Upamanyu Chatterjee gets French award

This article was last updated on April 16, 2022

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Author Upamanyu Chatterjee, who has been honoured by the French government with the prestigious Officier des Arts et des Lettres (Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters), says he is working on a new book that will hit bookstores late next year.

Chatterjee, of English August: An Indian Story fame, was given the medal and the citation from French Ambassador Jerome Bonnafont at the French embassy here Thursday for his contribution to contemporary literature.

“It’s a book. And I am not going to talk about it,” Chatterjee said about his latest project as he surveyed the elite crowd that had gathered to fete him.

The author was honoured along with photographer Raghu Rai.

Accepting the award, Chatterjee said he was proud to be in the same league as the legendary Balamurali Krishna, Mahasweta Devi and Raghu Rai, who had received the award.  “It’s an honour to be placed in the same pedestal. Probably the reason why they gave me this award is because of the fact that I am wearing a bandhgala and have a French connection,” the Mumbai-based author, whose wife is French, added as an afterthought.

Chatterjee currently works as a labour commissioner in Mumbai. In a brief chat Chatterjee fielded queries with candour and a dash of acerbic wit about the honour bestowed upon him and the terror strikes in Mumbai.

“It is very nice. People should have literary and cultural taste and should not bomb hotels. It is a horrible thing to have happened,” the author said.

Chatterjee said he had heard the first bomb go off in the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai.

Born in 1959 in Patna in Bihar, Chatterjee studied in St. Xavier’s School and St. Stephen’s College in Delhi. He joined the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) in 1983. Following the success of his first novel, he lived as a writer in residence at the University of Kent in 1990. In 1998, he was appointed director of languages in the ministry of human resource development.

His books include The Last Burden (1993), The Mammaries of The Welfare State (2000) and Weight Loss (2006).

A query on what Chatterjee’s new book was going to be all about drew an irreverent reply. “It’s going to be crap to carrots,” the author quipped, daring, “See what you can write… you have to write the way I speak.”

Chatterjee, who claimed to have “no social life apart from reading, writing and attending to his 9-5 job”, is reading Jim Corbett these days. “Corbett is retarded, he is yak. I can’t tell you why I am reading Jim Corbett. It was on the shelves. I sometimes read old books, nice books,” he smiled.

The author stays away from contemporary literature. “I have not read enough of (Salman) Rushdie, just Midnight’s Children. It was part of preparations for my IAS interview. It was in the same year the book was published,” he said.

On the other hand, the author is catching up with Bengali and French literature – two languages close to his heart. “Try and read in Bengali, try and read in French, it is a different experience altogether. The more languages you know, the less likely you are to become a terrorist,” he said.

Chatterjee has just finished reading Bangalir Itihas (History of a Bengali) by Nihar Ranjan Roy. “It is crap – 600 pages and so boring. It is about Marxist interpretations,” he said with a laugh.

Who is Chatterjee’s favourite Bengali author? The question evokes friendly fire. “Get off my back”. But he adds a minute later: “Sunil Gangopadhyay. And before this rubbish started happening, I was reading Golpo Guccha (Bunch of Stories)”.

The author hates travelling and exhorts the media to leave him alone.

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