Eastern Eye (UK)
‘Wodehouse’s works appeal to Indians of diverse backgrounds’
INDIAN DIPLOMAT EXPLAINS THE AUTHOR’S EVERLASTING POPULARITY IN SUBCONTINENT
PG WODEHOUSE, regarded by his fans as the greatest comic writer in the English language, has a bigger following in India than even in Britain, the country of his birth, according to Vikram Doraiswami, the Indian high commissioner to the UK.
One reason for this is to do with demographics, he told the PG Wodehouse Society (UK) last week at a meeting in the old world Savile Club in London’s West End.
“If we go by the rough rule of thumb that some 10 per cent 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 20 times more Indians than Britons), than even in his home country,” the high commissioner said.
Then came his clinching argument: “Indeed, as (journalist, author and all-round guru) Malcolm Muggeridge said: the last Englishmen left in the world are Indian.”
The chairman of the PG Wodehouse Society, Tim Andrew, introduced the evening’s speaker by saying: “In what might be flippantly referred to as his day job, he is actually His Excellency the High Commissioner of India to the United Kingdom. And he’s one of many Woodhouse fans based in his country.
“And if I may, I will show very briefly how he has already shown himself to be the very best of eggs in the manner of his joining the society.”
When the High Commissioner’s office said His Excellency wanted to become a member in highfalutin diplomatic language and the reply from Andrew was similarly flowery, “five minutes later, I got an email, if I may paraphrase, ‘No, stop it, stop it, I am Vikram, I want to join this absolutely wonderful society’.”
In fact, the senior diplomat prefers to be called “Vikram”.
“I joined before I became high commissioner to the UK,” he told his audience. He added: “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 outsize place in the empire are conspicuous by its absence in his books.
“Wodehouse societies apart, India is still a country where one might find Wodehouse fans in the oddest of places…. 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 Lutyens’s Delhi, the malls of Bangalore and the Raj-era streets of Calcutta. Collected sets and new prints are still sold at India’s teeming airports at bookstalls; and at railway stations, and the vast jumble of second-hand booksellers that dot most old areas of our cities.”
In his speech, the high commissioner offered a rather subversive interpretation of Jeeves, Wodehouse’s most famous creation who is not just a valet, but a “gentleman’s gentleman” to Bertram (“Bertie”) Wooster, a young man who is good-hearted, rich enough not to have to work for a living, but isn’t the brightest cove in the world. It is Jeeves who rescues Bertie on many occasions when he gets entangled in unwise engagements. When Bertie buys a suit or a cummerbund that does not meet with Jeeves’s approval, readers know these will invariably end up in the bin.
Vikram introduced the concept that Jeeves was desi by speculating on the future of Wodehouse novels.
“Perhaps one option is the way forward presented by the authorised new Wodehouse works that place in new context our familiar old friends and bring them into a new dimension of story-telling,” he said.
“The homage by Ben Schott, for instance, is superbly done. Are podcasts an option? The Master was famously unconvinced, as he found 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, I found the Hugh Laurie/Stephen Fry Jeeves and Wooster series the best of the lot.”
“Indeed, it is hard to visualise Jeeves now and not think of Stephen Fry – and I say this even though I am convinced that Jeeves was actually Indian.”
“Yes, really,” he declared. “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,” the high commissioner said.
“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!”
There is also Indians’ love of literature. “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.’”
There are echoes of Wodehouse in Bollywood, said Vikram. “Indeed, in general, Bollywood long reflected the advice offered to Sally (in The 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.”
Vikram made the point that “Wodehouse’s works appeal to Indians of the most diverse social backgrounds. There are the predictable lot: upper-class Anglophone Indians, but also less wellknown examples across India’s diplomatic, 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 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.”
He concluded: “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.”