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P. G. Wodehouse

On Wodehouse's enduring popularity in India.


India presents a peculiar phenomenon 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 outsized place in the empire—is conspicuous by its absence in his work. India is still a country where one might find Wodehouse fans in the oddest of places (not just in prisons, as the Master gloomily assumed his fan base festered, in a delightful short piece in Plum Pie). 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’ Delhi, the malls of Bangalore, and the Raj-era streets of Calcutta. Collected sets and new prints are still sold in India’s teeming airports at bookstalls whose product range otherwise barely justifies the appellation of “bookseller” and at railway stations and at the vast jumble of secondhand booksellers that dot most old areas of our cities.

Just who is 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 there are also less well-known 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, of course, the media. It is reasonable to assume that most educated Indians of a certain vintage have at read at least one P.G. Wodehouse story. Even younger English-speaking Indians have at least heard the name. If we go by the rough rule of thumb that some ten percent of our population speaks fluent English—yielding a modest one hundred thirty 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-scène, 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 humor, Wodehouse extended that practical decision to the empire as well.

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. The gooseberry-eyed butlers, eccentric uncles, and sparkling young ladies make his world a veritable paradise, and the near-complete absence of overtly political themes is also very attractive. Of course, there are some stories that touch upon politics—socialism figures in Psmith’s shorthand Communist Manifesto (“You work for the equal distribution of property, and start by collaring all you can and sitting on it”). There is also only a single reference to civil disobedience in India, and, of course, one of my favorite 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 bourgeois. And yet these are but trace elements in a body of work spanning some ninety-nine books.

Then there’s Wodehouse’s subtlety. India is a nation that is loud on politics and flamboyant, shall we say, in its use of political theater. 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 wordsmithy. 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 the Indian literary tradition. See, for instance, this line from Wodehouse’s “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.”

Wodehouse also excels at 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 humor, especially that in which our own upper-class twits come a cropper. Take, for example, the institution of a brilliant court humorist: the repertoire of a court comic is replicated not only in the court of Emperor Akbar but also in Bengal and 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 a theme that is reflected in India’s own modern story. One of my favorite 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.’”

Finally, there’s his 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’s 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 humor, in early Wodehouse works, the dial was more set toward the side of sentiment. But this evolved: the dial more or less settled in the direction of gentle humor. While Indian films largely remain set closer to the sentimental side, the general principle of Bollywood storylines is resolutely Wodehousian, 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 husband having brains. What good are brains to a man?” What indeed, one is tempted to say. In short, as Nicholas Barber notes, Wodehouse made it his purpose to make people happy, and to spread, as he called it, “sweetness and light.”

We in India also share with the British an admiration for the hardest act that Wodehouse performed. That, I believe, is making humor look effortless and spontaneous. We have empirical evidence to show us just how hard Wodehouse worked: a staggering number of books, hundreds of short stories, and such an astonishing 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 his instantly recognizable style. 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, which has similarly had to graft hard to succeed.

Having made the case for Wodehouse’s special place in India, where do I go from here? 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. 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, although 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 storytelling. 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 television an option? Well made though most of the previous film efforts were, the nuance of Wodehouse was lost in most of the serials and television 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 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: we Indians 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 in London.

In the end, to analyze the work of Wodehouse and his genius is like deconstructing a really fine souffle. It is just as pointless. Truly fine comic talent is famously hard to analyze: we find something funny in large part 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, and 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, P.G. 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 had thought. He is, was, and will always be The Master.

This essay was originally given as an address to the P. G. Wodehouse Society in London.

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Vikram Doraiswami is High Commissioner of India to the United Kingdom.