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How the Woosters captured Delhi
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Guardian 20 July 2002

How the Woosters captured Delhi

Shashi Tharoor

It was at the Hay-on-Wye Festival of Literature a few years ago that I realised with horror how low the fortunes of PG Wodehouse had sunk in his native land. I was on stage for a panel discussion on the works of the Master when the moderator, a gifted and suave young literary impresario, began the proceedings by asking innocently, "So how do you pronounce it - is it Woad-house or Wood-house?"

Woadhouse? You could have knocked me over with the proverbial feather, except that Wodehouse himself would have disdained the cliche, instead describing my expression as, perhaps, that of one who "had swallowed an east wind" (Carry On, Jeeves, 1925). The fact was that a luminary at the premier book event in the British Isles had no idea how to pronounce the name of the man I regarded as the finest English writer since Shakespeare. I spent the rest of the panel discussion looking (to echo a description of Bertie Wooster's Uncle Tom) like a pterodactyl with a secret sorrow.

My dismay had Indian roots. Like many of my compatriots, I had discovered Wodehouse young and pursued my delight across the 95 volumes of the oeuvre, savouring book after book as if the pleasure would never end. When All India Radio announced, one sunny afternoon in February 1975, that Wodehouse had died, I felt a cloud of darkness settle over me. 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, but his death still came as a shock. Every English-language newspaper in India carried it on their front pages; the articles and letters that were published in the following days about his life and work would have filled volumes.

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 like one who had "drained the four-ale of life and found a dead mouse at the bottom of the pewter" (Sam the Sudden, also from that vintage year of 1925).

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 who was to go on to become a counsellor to the prime minister of India, 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 souffle to Bocuse. 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: PG Wodehouse is by far the most popular English-language writer in India, his readership exceeding that of Agatha Christie or John Grisham. 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 familiar to, and beloved by, most educated Indians. I cannot think of an Indian family I know that does not have at least one Wodehouse book on its shelves, and most have several. In a country where most people's earning capacity has not kept up with inflation and book-borrowing is part of the culture, libraries stock multiple copies of each Wodehouse title. At the British Council libraries in the major Indian cities, demand for Wodehouse reputedly outstrips that for any other author, so that each month's list of "new arrivals" includes reissues of old Wodehouse favourites.

In the 27 years since his death, much has changed in India, but Wodehouse still commands the heights. His works are sold on railway station platforms and airport bookstalls alongside the latest bestsellers. In 1988, the state-run television network Doordarshan broadcast a 10-part Hindi adaptation of his 1923 classic Leave it to Psmith, with the Shropshire castle of the Earl of Emsworth becoming the Rajasthani palace of an indolent Maharaja. (The series was a disaster: Wodehousean purists were appalled by the changes, and the TV audience discovered that English humour does not translate too well into Hindi.) Quiz contests, a popular activity in urban India, continue to feature questions about Wodehouse's books ("What is Jeeves's first name?" "Which of Bertie Wooster's fiancees persisted in calling the stars, 'God's daisy chain'?") But, alas, reports from St Stephen's College tell me that the Wodehouse Society is now defunct, having fallen into disrepute when one of its practical joke weeks went awry (it appears to have involved women's underwear flying at half-mast from the flagpole).

Many are astonished at the extent of Wodehouse's popularity in India, particularly when, elsewhere in the English-speaking world, he is no longer much read. Americans know Wodehouse from re-runs of earlier TV versions of his short stories on programmes with names such as Masterpiece Theatre, but these have a limited audience, even though some of his 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 Wodehouse "seems to have lost his general audience and become mainly a cult author savoured by connoisseurs for his prose artistry".

That is increasingly true in England and the rest of the Commonwealth, but not in India. While no English-language writer can truly be said to have a "mass" following in India, where only 2% of the population reads English, Wodehouse has maintained a general rather than a cult audience among this Anglophone minority: unlike others who have enjoyed fleeting success, 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 Jay McInerney.

At one level, India's fascination with Wodehouse is indeed one of those enduring and endearing international mysteries, like why Pakistanis are good at squash but none of their neighbours is, or why the Americans, who can afford to do anything the right way, have never managed to understand that tea is made with boiling water, not boiled water. And yet many have convinced themselves that there is more to it than that. Some have seen in Wodehouse's popularity a lingering nostalgia for the Raj, the British Empire in India. Writing in 1988, the journalist Richard West thought India's Wodehouse devotees were those who hankered after the England of 50 years before (ie the 1930s). That was the age when the English loved and treasured their own language, when schoolchildren learned Shakespeare, Wordsworth and even Rudyard Kipling... It was Malcolm Muggeridge who remarked that the Indians are now the last Englishmen. That may be why they love such a quintessentially English writer.

Those lines are, of course, somewhat 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, 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 the 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, to the works of Wodehouse in 1942; 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 were 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 they did need a passport, and that was the English language. English was undoubtedly Britain's most valuable and abiding legacy to India, and educated Indians, a famously polyglot people, rapidly learned and delighted in it - both for itself, and as a means to various ends. These ends were both political (for Indians turned the language of the imperialists into the language of nationalism) and pleasureable (for the language granted access to a wider world of ideas and entertainments). 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 Indians they 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 PN Furbank called his "comic pretence of verbal precision, an exhibition of lexicology." 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 mon archs 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." The terrifying Honoria Glossop has, "a laugh like a squadron of cavalry charging over a tin bridge". Aunts, who always loom large in Wodehouse's world, bellow to each other, "like mastodons across the primeval swamp".

Jeeves, the gentleman's personal gentleman, coughs softly, like, "a very old sheep clearing its throat on a distant mountain-top". Evelyn Waugh worshipped Wodehouse's penchant for tossing off original similes: "a soul as grey as a stevedore's undervest"; "her face was shining like the seat of a bus driver's trousers"; "a slow, pleasant voice, like clotted cream made audible"; "she looked like a tomato struggling for self-expression".

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. As we near the 100th anniversary of the publication of his first book, The Pothunters, in September 1902, perhaps that is as good an argument as any for a long-overdue Wodehouse revival in England.

Copyright Michel Kuzmenko (gmk), The Russian Wodehouse Society © 1996-2023. Established 04/04/1996.