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Wodehousian magic

The popularity of P.G. Wodehouse among Indians is two-fold. One, his readers do not have to identify with any of his characters. Two, his insidious but good-humoured subversion of the language, conducted with straight-faced aplomb, appeals most of all to a people who have acquired English but rebel against its heritage.

VALENTINE'S Day has just passed. Twenty-seven Valentine's Days ago, I was sitting in my college room at Delhi University when All India Radio announced that P.G. Wodehouse had died. It was a typically sunny February afternoon in Delhi, but I felt a cloud of impenetrable darkness. The newly (and belatedly) knighted Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, creator of Jeeves and of the prize pig the Empress of Blandings, was in his 94th year; yet his death still came as a shock. Three decades earlier, Wodehouse had reacted to the passing of his stepdaughter, Leonora, with the numbed words: "I thought she was immortal." I had thought Wodehouse was immortal too, and I felt the bereavement keenly.


Wodehouse with his wife Ethel ... a world of erudite butlers, absent-minded earls and silly artistocrats.

For months before his death I had procrastinated over a letter to Wodehouse. It was a collegian's fan letter, made special by being written on the letterhead (complete with curly-tailed pig) of the Wodehouse Society of St. Stephen's College, Delhi University. Ours was then the only Wodehouse Society in the world; and I was its president, a distinction I prized over all others in an active and eclectic extra-curricular life. The Wodehouse Society ran mimicry and comic speech contests and organised the annual Lord Ickenham Memorial Practical Joke Week, the bane of all at college who took themselves too seriously. The society's underground rag, Spice, edited by a wildly original classmate, Ramu Damodaran, was by far the most popular newspaper on campus; even its misprints were deliberate, and deliberately funny.

I had wanted to tell the Master all this, and to gladden his famously indulgent heart with the tribute being paid to him at this incongruous outpost of Wodehouseana thousands of miles away from any place he had ever written about. But I had never been satisfied by the prose of any of my drafts of the letter. Writing to the man Evelyn Waugh had called "the greatest living writer of the English language, the head of my profession" was like offering a soufflé to Madhur Jaffrey. It had to be just right. Of course, it never was, and now I would never be able to reach out and establish this small connection to the writer who had given me more joy than anything else in my life.

The loss was personal, but it was also widely shared: P.G. Wodehouse was at that time by far the most popular English-language writer in India, his readership exceeding that of Agatha Christie or Harold Robbins. His erudite butlers, absent-minded earls and silly-ass aristocrats, out to pinch policemen's helmets on Boat Race Night or perform convoluted acts of petty larceny at the behest of tyrannical aunts, are — as readers of this piece will attest — familiar to, and beloved by, most educated Indians. I cannot think of an Indian family I knew that did not have at least one Wodehouse book on its shelves, and most had several.

Many abroad are astonished at the extent of Wodehouse's success in India, particularly when, elsewhere in the world, he is no longer much read. Americans know Wodehouse from a highbrow television show, "Masterpiece Theatre", and reruns of earlier TV versions of his short stories, but these have a limited audience, even though some of Wodehouse's funniest stories were set in Hollywood and he lived the last three decades of his life in Remsenberg, Long Island. The critic Michael Dirda noted in the Washington Post some years ago that, in the West, Wodehouse "seems to have lost his general audience and become mainly a cult author savoured by connoisseurs for his prose artistry." While no English-language writer can truly be said to have a "mass" following in India, where only two per cent of the population, after all, read English, Wodehouse has maintained a general rather than a cult audience; unlike others, he has never gone out of fashion. This bewilders those who think that nothing could be further removed from Indian life, with its poverty and political intensity, than the cheerfully silly escapades of Wodehouse's decadent Edwardian Young Men in Spats. Indians enjoying Wodehouse, they suggest, makes about as much sense as the cognoscenti of Chad lapping up R.K. Narayan.

Some foreigners have seen in Wodehouse's popularity a lingering nostalgia for the Raj of Kipling. Malcolm Muggeridge once remarked that "Indians are now the last Englishmen." The very notion is, of course, more fatuous than anything Wodehouse himself ever wrote. Wodehouse is loved by Indians who loathe Kipling and detest the Raj and all its works. Indeed, despite a brief stint in a Hong Kong bank, Wodehouse had no colonial connection himself and the Raj is largely absent from his books. There is only one notable exception I can recall from his oeuvre, in a 1935 short story: "Why is there unrest in India? Because its inhabitants eat only an occasional handful of rice. The day when Mahatma Gandhi sits down to a good juicy steak and follows it up with roly-poly pudding and a spot of Stilton, you will see the end of all this nonsense of Civil Disobedience." But Indians saw that comment was meant to elicit laughter, not agreement.

If anything, Wodehouse is one British writer whom Indian nationalists could admire without fear of political incorrectness. My former mother-in-law, the daughter of a prominent Indian nationalist politician, remembers introducing Britain's last Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, in 1947 to the works of Wodehouse; it was typical that the symbol of the British Empire had not read the "quintessentially English" Wodehouse but that the Indian freedom-fighter had.

Indeed, it is precisely the lack of politics in Wodehouse's writing, or indeed of any other social or philosophic content, that made what Waugh called his "idyllic world" so free of the trappings of Englishness, quintessential or otherwise. Unlike almost any other writer, Wodehouse does not require his readers to identify with any of his characters: they are stock figures, almost theatrical archetypes whose carefully-plotted exits and entrances one follows because they are amusing, not because one is actually meant to care about them. Whereas other English novelists burdened their readers with the specificities of their characters' lives and circumstances, Wodehouse's existed in a never-never land that was almost as unreal to his English readers as to his Indian ones. Indian readers are able to enjoy Wodehouse free of the anxiety of allegiance; for all its droll particularities, the world he created, from London's Drones Club to the village of Matcham Scratchings, was a world of the imagination, to which Indians required no visa.

But we did need a passport, and that was the English language. English was undoubtedly Britain's most valuable and abiding legacy to India, and we Indians took to it — both for itself, and as a means to various ends. These ends were both political (for Indians like Nehru turned the language of the imperialists into the language of nationalism) and pleasurable (for the language granted access to a wider world of ideas and entertainments). If the British taught us their literature to colonise our minds, it was only natural that Indians would enjoy a writer who used language as Wodehouse did — playing with its rich storehouse of classical precedents, mockingly subverting the very canons colonialism had taught us we were supposed to venerate. "He groaned slightly and winced, like Prometheus watching his vulture dropping in for lunch." Or, "The butler was looking nervous, like Macbeth interviewing Lady Macbeth after one of her visits to the spare room." And best of all, in a country ruled for the better part of two centuries by the dispensable siblings of the British nobility: "Unlike the male codfish which, suddenly finding itself the parent of three million five hundred thousand little codfish, cheerfully resolves to love them all, the British aristocracy is apt to look with a somewhat jaundiced eye on its younger sons."

That sentence captures much of the Wodehouse magic — what P.N. Furbank called his "comic pretence of verbal precision." Wodehouse's writing embodied erudition, literary allusion, jocular slang and an uncanny sense of timing that owed much to the long-extinct art of music-hall comedy: "She ... [resembled] one of those engravings of the mistresses of Bourbon kings which make one feel that the monarchs who selected them must have been men of iron, impervious to fear, or else short-sighted." Furbank thought Wodehouse's "whole style [was] a joke about literacy". But it is a particularly literate joke. No authorial dedication will ever match Wodehouse's oft-plagiarised classic, for his 1925 collection of golfing stories, The Heart of a Goof: "to my daughter Leonora, without whose never-failing sympathy and encouragement this book would have been finished in half the time."

Part of Wodehouse's appeal to Indians certainly lies in the uniqueness of his style, which inveigled us into a sort of conspiracy of universalism: his humour was inclusive, for his mock-serious generalisations were, of course, as absurd to those he was ostensibly writing about as to us. "'Like so many substantial citizens of America, he had married young and kept on marrying, springing from blonde to blonde like the chamois of the Alps leaping from crag to crag." My own favourites stretch the possibilities of the language in unexpected ways: "She had more curves than a scenic railway"; "I turned him down like a bedspread"; and the much-quoted "if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled".

This insidious but good-humoured subversion of the language, conducted with straight-faced aplomb, appeals most of all to a people who have acquired English but rebel against its heritage. The colonial connection left strange patterns on the minds of the connected. Wodehouse's is a world we can share with the English on equal terms, because they are just as surprised by its enchantments. Perhaps that is as good an argument as any for our continued national love, 54 years after we cast out his compatriots, for the works of P.G. Wodehouse.

Shashi Tharoor is the author of the new novel Riot. Visit him at www.shashitharoor.com

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