Monday, June 24, 2024


Dhaka Tribune

PG Wodehouse and the Indian imagination

Update : 15 Mar 2023, 03:40 PM

You are already well aware of the peculiar phenomenon that India presents in the world of Wodehouse: It is possibly the largest continuing market for his books, with singularly devoted fans, even though the country and its “outsider”status in the empire is conspicuous by its absence in his writing. 

Wodehouse societies apart, India is still a country where one might find Wodehouse fans in the oddest of places -- not just in prisons, where the Master gloomily assumed his fan base festered, in a delightful short piece in Plum Pie, although there is curiously that story too in India's social-media driven era of political angst. 

These include the not-so-gently-decaying Raj-era halls, libraries, and tea-planters clubs, where one might expect to find well-thumbed copies of his books. The Master is also to be found in swish bookshops of Lutyen's Delhi, the malls of Bangalore, and the Raj-era streets of Kolkata. 

Collected sets and new prints are still sold at India's teeming airports at bookstalls whose product range otherwise barely justifies the appellation of “bookseller,” and at railway stations, and the vast jumble of second-hand booksellers that dot most old areas of our cities. 

Just who are reading these books? And why? 

Let me start with the first question. Wodehouse's works appeal to Indians of the most diverse social backgrounds. There are the predictable lot: upper-class anglophone Indians, but also less well-known examples across India's diplomatic service, home civil service, and armed forces -- where we still actually do a good line in generously whiskered, harrumphing old colonels with swagger sticks and tweedy coats. 

Wodehousiana permeates corporate India as well as academia and of course, the media. It is reasonable to assume that most educated Indians of a certain vintage have at least read one PG Wodehouse story. Even younger English-speaking Indians have at least heard the name. 

If we go by the rough rule of thumb that some 10% of our population speaks fluent English -- yielding a modest 130 million souls (if you can count elites as people with souls) -- we deduce that the Master is better known to a larger number in India (which, frankly, isn't difficult given the fact that there are twenty times more Indians than Britons), than even in his home country. 

Indeed, as Malcolm Muggeridge said: The last Englishmen left in the world are Indian. 

Even if we set aside Muggeridge's somewhat incorrect conclusion, the fact remains that Wodehouse is widely read in India. 

Why is this so? 

After all, none of the Master's stories are set in India. Indeed, the Colonies intrude but rarely into the pristine world of London and the Shires. 

Even beyond, in America too, it is New York that figures as mise-en-scene, apart of course, from Hollywood. 

We can assume that having recognized that there was more downside risk than upside advantage in mining the complexities of politics for humour, Wodehouse extended that practical decision to the empire as well. 

And so, a first point: In a land where politics is our staple entertainment, and in an era where it is increasingly hard to know whether politics is risible, regrettable, or reprehensible, it is the focused, almost deliberate near-vacuum of politics that makes the world of Wodehouse a perfect Eden. 

Admittedly, the gooseberry-eyed butlers, eccentric uncles, and sparkling young ladies make Wodehouse's world a veritable paradise, but the near-complete absence of overtly political themes is also very attractive. 

Of course, there are some stories that touch upon politics -- socialism figures, including in Psmith's shorthand Communist Manifesto, advocating the equal distribution of property, where you start by collaring all you can and sitting on it. 

There is also only a singular reference to Civil Disobedience in India, and of course, one of my favourite scenes in Big Money, where the Earl of Hoddesdon gets his top hat stoned by a young lad, and is then pursued by an agitated parent who in part voices a proletariat urge to disembowel the earl for being, among other things, a bourgeoise. 

And yet these are but trace elements in a body of work spanning some 99 books. 

Show, don't tell

Second: Subtlety. As Tony Ring, that druid of things Wodehouse writes -- there is nothing simple in the world of Wodehouse. For a nation that is loud on politics and flamboyant, shall we say, in its use of political theatre, the exquisite subtlety of the Master is a pitch-perfect contrast. 

Every book is redolent with the most brilliant sentence construction, and every word is perfectly suited to the point of its placement. While it would be a stretch to say that Indians read Wodehouse solely because of his literary craftsmanship, it is not incorrect to link this virtue to the long Indian literary tradition that prizes the simultaneous use of subtlety, precision, and creativity in word-smithy. 

This tradition dates back to classical Sanskrit literature, in particular, the legendary Kalidasa -- indeed, given chronology, we might describe Shakespeare as the English Kalidasa -- but this tradition continues into the age of courtly Urdu and Persian, reaching its apogee with the genius of Delhi's own Mirza Ghalib. 

The brilliance of a line that turns around and carries a sting in the tail, as it were, is particularly valued in Indian literary tradition.

See for instance, this line from Lord Emsworth Acts for the Best: “Years before, when a boy, and romantic as most boys are, his lordship had sometimes regretted that the Emsworths, though an ancient clan, did not possess a Family Curse. How little he had suspected that he was shortly to become the father of it.” 

And contrast it with Ghalib's famous line: Oh Lord, it is not the sins I committed that I regret, but those which I had no opportunity to commit.

An eye for social mobility 

Third: the art of gentle insurrection. Without over-analyzing social conflict (especially in this era of culture wars), it is not hard to see genuine empathy of the author for precisely the young self-made, driven, and aspirational representatives of a new era. 

With its long history of feudalism, Indian culture is similarly full of insurrection through humour, especially that in which our own upper class twits come a cropper. 

Take, for example, the institution of a brilliant court humourist: the repertoire of a court comic is replicated in not only the Court of Emperor Akbar, but also in Bengal and indeed in South India. 

Thus the wit of Birbal, Gopal the Jester, and Tenali Raman are a staple of popular culture in India. 

And so it is reasonable to see why the English-speaking middle class in India identify with the aspiring members of Mr Mulliner's large family tree -- and not just because we have vast families too -- or with energetic second sons and hard-working, self-made women, who reflect the spirit of a new entrepreneurial class. 

This is also very much a theme that is reflected in India's own modern story. One of my favourite insurrectionary quotes, which applies very much to my own story, is this one from The World of Mr Mulliner: “As Egbert from boyhood up had shown no signs of possessing any intelligence whatsoever, a place had been found for him in the Civil Service.”

Or this denunciation of that prize snob, the Duke of Dunstable: “‘You are without exception the worst tick and bounder that ever got fatty degeneration of the heart through gorging food and wine wrenched from the lips of a starving proletariat. You make me sick. You poison the air. Good-bye Uncle Alaric,' said Ricky, drawing himself away rather ostentatiously. ‘I think we had better terminate this interview, or I may become brusque.'”

A bleeding heart 

Fourth: sentimentality: Indians are gluttons for it. Anyone who has seen a Bollywood film knows that the narrative is primarily built around boy-meets girl -- boy loses girl -- boy gets girl again. 

It is almost as if tanned versions of Bingo Little or Pongo Twistleton are permanent fixtures on Indian screens. 

It is almost a heresy to say so, but if we were to take a sliding scale between sentiment and humour, in early Wodehouse works, the dial was more set toward the side of sentiment. 

But this evolved: Indeed, the dial more or less settled in the direction of gentle humour, following what might be called his first quarter. 

While Indian films largely remain set closer to the sentimental side, the general principle of Bollywood storylines is resolutely Wodehousian, not only in terms of theme, but also in the treatment of love without all the messy business of sex -- which for decades Bollywood coyly avoided. 

Indeed, in general, Bollywood long reflected the advice offered to Sally (in Adventures of Sally), that, “Chumps always make the best husbands … all the unhappy marriages come from the husbands having brains. What good are brains to a man?” 

What indeed, one is tempted to say. 

Sweetness and light

In short, therefore, as Nicholas Barber notes, Wodehouse made it his purpose to make people happy, and to spread, as he called it, “sweetness and light.”

Fifth, and my final point before the audience gets restive and goes beyond staring at its collective wrist-watch and demands direct action: We in India share with you an admiration for the hardest act that Wodehouse performed. 

That, I believe, is making humour look effortless and spontaneous. We have empirical evidence to show us just how hard he worked: A staggering 96 (or 99) books; hundreds of short stories, and such a staggering output rate in his early years of relative hardship that he was able to keep body and soul together on the strength of his pen without his day job as a banker. 

But even more than quantity, it was the superhuman effort to produce quality: We know from the Master's own account of the kind of effort he made to keep his plot taut and action brisk. 

This included typing reams of plot and narrative ideas and hanging up each sheet of paper like laundry on a clothesline; these were then literally lifted or dropped page by page, or twisted, to identify bits that need reworking upward, downward or to add a twist to the tale. 

Compared to most ordinary writers, most of whom would not rework anything, except perhaps a letter pleading for an overdraft, Wodehouse worked incredibly hard to produce effortless, and seemingly spontaneous humour. 

As an advertisement once said, in a different context, the footballer Leo Messi worked 18 years to become an overnight sensation. 

To do all of this, and to do it well consistently for decades, and to be completely devoid of a larger-than-life persona is also very appealing, especially to the middle class in India that has similarly had to graft hard to succeed. 

And so, ladies and gentlemen, fellow travellers in the world of Wodehouse: Having made the case for Wodehouse's special place in India, where do we go from here? 

Passing on the heirloom

There is certainly a case for a larger effort by Wodehouse societies the world over to introduce to a new generation of readers the genius of Wodehouse. 

For there is little point denying that this is necessary for younger generations, if for no other reason than for their own good, as the world they inherit is quite as grim as the one that Wodehouse acknowledged but rarely, almost parenthetically. 

Is there a feasible way of doing so? Perhaps one option is the way forward presented by the authorized new Wodehouse works that place in new context our familiar old friends and bring them into a new dimension of story-telling. The homage by Ben Schott, for instance, is superbly done. 

Are podcasts an option? The Master was famously unconvinced, as he found his readings of his own work to be less than perfect. 

Is film or TV an option? Well made though most of the previous film efforts were, the nuance of Wodehouse was often lost in most of the serials and TV productions, although speaking personally, and if I am allowed to say so I found the Hugh Lawrie/Stephen Fry Jeeves and Wooster series the best of the lot. 

Jeeves the Indian

Indeed, it is hard to visualize Jeeves now and not think of Stephen Fry -- and I say this even though I am convinced that Jeeves was actually Indian. 

Yes, really. Sift the evidence: in Right Ho Jeeves, we hear from Bertie that Jeeves doesn't have to open doors. He's like one of those birds in India who bung their astral bodies about -- the chaps, I mean, who, having gone into thin air in Bombay, reassemble the parts, and appear two minutes later in Calcutta. 

Hence, my final conclusion. Frankly, we love Wodehouse because of course, his smartest and most celebrated character was a carefully disguised Indian, after whom even dry cleaning services have been named here in London! 

An enduring legacy

More seriously, I conclude here, Ladies and Gentlemen, with one final thought, which frankly comes about 20 minutes too late to help you: To analyze the work of Wodehouse and his genius is like deconstructing a really fine souffle. Frankly, it is just as pointless. 

Truly fine comic talent is famously hard to analyze: We find something funny as much because of who we are, and not solely because of the subject. 

Wodehouse was a genius not only because of the quantity and sustained quality of his output; not just because of his enormous erudition, handled so lightly that he could tuck in everything from Shakespeare, Cicero, Marcus Aurelius to popular lyrics: no, it was also because he could improvise new comic elements but from within a tightly framed set of narrative chords. 

If jazz and Indian classical music share the same almost oxymoronic freedom to innovate freely, but within a rigid parameter of chords and scales, PG Wodehouse pulled off exactly that feat: In a tight framework of silly asses, doddery peers, absent-minded clergy and comic villains, butlers, bright young things, and of course, Armadas of aunts, he created endless, magical music that always leaves me thinking that the world is a better place than I thought. 

And therefore, he is, was and will always be The Master. 

Vikam Doraiswami is the Indian High Commissioner to the UK. This essay is an edited version of India and PG Wodehouse: A personal journey -- a talk given to the PG Wodehouse Society at the Savile Club last month.

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