KOREAN ILLUSTRATOR Swan Park's cover for the recently reissued PG Wodehouse best-of compilation, What Ho!—featuring a man and a swan flapping at each other with equal energy—took me back to Jeeves and the Impending Doom, the first Wodehouse story I read after several years of wanting to.
When I was eight years old, my parents would frogmarch me every morning between March and June to the neighbours', where I simmered under adult supervision till I was reclaimed—an extreme measure required because it was summer vacation time, because I was a bit of an arsonist, and because I had attempted, several times, to assassinate my kid sister. The neighbours had no entertainment to offer except the textbooks which their several college-going offspring never threw away because the English exams were a bit of a lottery. I ploughed through every one of those volumes paying equal attention to the contents thereof as to the little bits of classroom memorabilia lodged within—indecipherable doodles, scribbled comments and the occasional dried peepal leaf on which there would always be two names hopefully entwined within a series of repeated hearts.
Robert Lynd, the Anglo-Irish writer, continues to be dearly beloved as a model essayist among those who compile university textbooks in India. I chanced upon an essay on habits kickstarted for Lynd by a waiter who restored him and a lost pack of cigarettes to each other's society—the waiter had noticed that the author tended to tear open his stack of smokes in quite an individual way. Lynd said something about the man being 'a real-life Jeeves'; when I looked at the glossary it threw 'valet' and 'Wodehouse' at me. The essayist had hinted at Jeeves' magical abilities, but the name that Wodehouse borrowed for his manservant from some county cricketer fascinated me more—it rolled off the tongue like no other, and seemed to taxi towards a stop with the sleek self-possession of an airplane. And so it became my mission that summer to knock on every door in our street to ask if they had books with Jeeves in them. As streets went, this one throbbed with character; it was home to four retired high school headmasters, two engineers, our Goan landlord and three ruddy-faced personages named this or that D'Souza who owed their perennial jollity to the magic wrought by the exchange rate on the pensions they received for services to the African arm of the British Empire. Between them, they had acres and acres of library, and yet not one of them had heard of Wodehouse or Jeeves, a fact that will puzzle me till my dying day.
I had to wait till I was 11 to get my hands on a book by Wodehouse. My parents had found a government-run library in the vicinity, and figured that this was a cost-effective way of dealing with the son-and-summer-vacation problem. I spent a desultory year speed-reading my way through stacks of hardy girls and Nancy boys before a gleaming metal rack arrived at the City Central Library, Haines Road, Bangalore. It gleamed because it was freshly painted and, in addition, it radiated an orange plenitude from within—some bureaucrat had had a flash of inspiration and ordered every volume from Penguin's reprints of the Wodehouse oeuvre.
The very first title that I borrowed was Very Good, Jeeves, where the first story put Wooster on an island with an angry swan and a cabinet minister; it seemed to capture in crystal some profound truth about my dealings with the adult world. This, and the fact that Wooster and Jeeves duelled in two different languages—one a dialect of jauntiness and the other a language of understatement and economy—ensured that I was hooked. I finished the book in a day and hotfooted it to the library for another volume. It looked like it could drizzle and there were barely 15 minutes to closing time and so I gave up my normal amble for an undignified gallop and returned home bearing The Code of the Woosters.
I got as far as Watkyn Bassett's cow-creamer coup when something of a kilovolt jolt hit me in the side. The rest of the evening went by in a blur of pain. Medical opinion was sought, and it soon established that my brisk half-run had mysteriously caused appendicitis. Surgery was recommended, the evolutionary vestige was duly dispatched, followed then by a glorious three-week vacation from school. All this gave my parents, who had begun to think I was indestructible, a bit of a turn; they waited on me hand and foot and embraced the small duty of fetching me books from the library. I led during that time the sort of life allowed only to Nobel laureates in Latin America. I rose late, I read Maugham's short stories every morning and, after a short siesta, spent the evenings devouring the Jeeves books—alternating between involuntary hoots of laughter and timeouts where I clutched my side and took several deep breaths because anything other than a carefully managed chortle hurt like the blazes. It is thus that Wodehouse's name began to be indelibly associated in my head with playing hooky.
Over the next few months, I worked my way through the Wodehouse shelves at the library, aided in this single-mindedness of purpose by the fact that nobody else was interested in borrowing the books—the daily riots always occurred around the return shelves crowded with Asterix and Tintin albums, Mills and Boon romances and the brick-size offerings of Robert Ludlum and Harold Robbins. I moved beyond Wooster and Jeeves to Psmith, to the Blandings novels, to Uncle Fred, to Ukridge, to Mr Mulliner, and eventually to the golf stories. I wandered towards the hardcover shelves one evening and lit immediately upon a volume titled Sunset at Blandings—the Emsworth novel that Wodehouse left unfinished—the contents of which led me to two startling discoveries: the notion of Wodehouse scholarship and the fact that his works enjoyed a large following. And just as I was beginning to wonder disconsolately about what to read next, the librarians managed to get hold of Jaico Books' rather ratty editions of the school stories. We moved house several times after that, but no other branch of Karnataka's public library system ever matched this feast.
Recurring dreams are usually unpleasant. In the only exception to this rule, I am once again the boy I was, and I find myself looking up those unfrequented shelves to find a slew of new Wodehouse titles and I shift from foot to foot as I try to pick one.
WHO READS WODEHOUSE in India and why?
For a long time, I knew nobody who did actually read Wodehouse. Undergraduate boredom caused me to insert myself into Bangalore's quizzing scene in the late 1980s, and that is where I came across live Wodehouse fans for the first time. Their conversations began unexceptionably—which book was their favourite, Wooster or Blandings, and so on—but deteriorated rapidly after that into mantric call-and-response routines. I remember very clearly an exchange between two grizzled veterans where one raised his snout to the sky to bellow the words, "Forty-five minutes if it lasted a second?" and received in no time the response, "Heppenstall's sermon on Brotherly Love!" I don't know if this has anything to do with anything, but both men were Bengalis. The former respondent then assumed the same quivering-nostrils attitude to deliver the even more puzzling phrase, "Begins in a low minor of two quarter-notes in four-four time, and ends in a shower of accidental grace-notes?" upon which the other smote himself in the chest and decimated all eardrums in the vicinity with a lusty rendition of "Pig-hoo-o-o-o-ey", the infallible pig-calling formula that Lord Emsworth is taught by a kind soul. Their exchanges were punctuated with bursts of shrill laughter that began as fairly domestic whinnies before tailing off into hyena-sounds.
The Wodehousian in India is typically either some archaic monster that causes terror each time it digs its dactyls deep into a shuffle-bag of plum metaphors and phrases, or it is a pip-pipsqueak, an accumulator of period mannerisms and verbal tics.
To meet the latter sort, you must Google Wodehouse and India—first on the list is an execrable US National Public Radio (NPR) broadcast from 2006. Apart from making the claim that Wodehouse is "an unexpected literary phenomenon (that) is now sweeping the nation", it also chooses to take you "to Bangalore, India's high-tech capital, a bustling city on the country's cutting edge" to meet a bunch of fans who take their passion for the master to a bathetic extreme—they meet in some restaurant to call each other names such as Hamilton Beamish, Galahad Threepwood and Rupert Psmith. The small irony in getting up to all these hijinks in India's call-centre capital—where people habitually call themselves Pat and Mike for eight hours every day—seems to have, in Frost's phrase, gone missing by. The background noise to the host's carefully modulated surprise is provided by Beamish and company as they natter on in an adenoidal fashion about which of them has the largest Wodehouse collection, display purist snobbery about Isi Bahane, the Doordarshan version of Leave it to Psmith, and gurgle in inarticulate delight over some description of the weather in the canon.
What's as galling as these flibbertigibbets is the avid pursuit of faraway quaintness that the NPR host shares with practically every Western journalist who has ever turned up to ask why Indians continue to read Wodehouse. Each of them is either curio-hunting or looking for some magically preserved last outpost of the Raj. By some magical Yin-and-Yang-ery, they find their opposite numbers in serried phalanxes—individuals whose minds are unwitting museums to the Edwardian drawingroom.
One would expect Shashi Tharoor, by his own estimation the founder of the first Wodehouse society anywhere in the world, to provide a more interesting answer to the question we began with. In an engaging essay that appeared in The Hindu in 2002, he dismisses the last-outpost argument as fatuous and offers this analysis instead: Wodehouse's "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". While there is much truth in what he has to say about the author's gifts, I found myself doing a double-take as I read that sentence through. Does he really believe in all that self-congratulatory twaddle about rebelling against English's heritage or does he simply enjoy the fancy footwork? Is Tharoor's take no more than a case of English-medium wanting to be rare and welldone at the same time?
The fundamental problem with local Wodehousians is thus their limited capacity for insight into the passion that they claim as their own. That awfully big adventure is one they turn away from too quickly.
To begin with, we could ask ourselves if Wodehouse fits quite naturally into a widespread obsession with acquiring 'culture' and demonstrating ownership thereof. Are the quote-drunk quizzers and the Beamishes suffering from Cantonmentitis? Are symptoms of the same malady apparent in urban theatrical efforts driven by an abiding interest in fancy dress and fruity accents? Does Cantonmentitis lie behind the bone china mania which animates my otherwise true-blue Malayalee aunts? In simpler times, newspapers would carry photographs of beaming dignitaries, accompanied always by captions of the form "Ambassador of country X presents his credentials to the President". Are these images the true metaphor for the ceremonies of arrival we have dismissed as Cantonmentitis?
We could call on the fact that the British once supplied the blueprints of our modernity and ask if Wodehouse's celebrations of British eccentricity allow us the impossible desire for individual freedom. Can we point to the fact that the present blueprints are more or less American and posit a diminished audience for Wodehouse in the near future?
The feminist Susie Tharu once remarked that acquiring English was perhaps the newest way of becoming a Brahmin in India. One could extend the metaphor a little to accommodate the notion that enjoying Wodehouse is one of the rituals that define this newfound identity, a way of earning or proving your membership. The idea becomes far more interesting if one does not omit the other writer who has arguably occupied the imagination of our chattering classes for an equal length of time—Ayn Rand. Do we see these two writers as individuals separated by no great distance, defining thus the broadminded imagination of this new class? Or do we see our hero as the gentler south, the very Antipodes to the gruff northern thunder of this woman who named herself after a typewriter and seems to this day like a caricature that escaped one of her works into real life?
The perceptive reader will now raise her hand to ask of all these answers the question: How will we ever know for sure? That is the sort of truth we don't want to get to in too much of a hurry. Can all our sociology over why Wodehouse is read in these parts ever really amount to anything more than thought-experiments? Is there an honest way of talking about what we read outside the personal, the idiosyncratic and the autobiographical?
WE RETURN, THEREFORE, TO AUTOBIOGRAPHY. The very first frisson that I received from Wodehouse's books was the fantasy of privacy. More precisely, the idea that an unhindered private life was possible even though menaced, as in the case of Bertie Wooster or Lord Emsworth, by family intention and social expectation. To live in a world where everybody was already my honorary aunt or uncle was to live in an atmosphere of friendly surveillance that could plunge into KGB frost for reasons unexplained. A walk to the library was necessarily a trip interrupted by three people who wanted to know where you were going, and three others who wanted to look at the books you were returning with, and to offer advice on what you should be reading instead. When Wooster shinned down a guilt-free drainpipe to avoid Aunt Agatha after the episode with the cabinet minister, he also slipped me a file inside a loaf of bread.
Here were characters who woke up hungover, who made a religion out of laziness, who had no other visible religion in their lives, who threw away money on horses, who were habitually irreverent about the word of the Lord. All the enforced pieties of my life crumbled in reading the Wooster stories and the meaning of masculinity expanded to include ordinary misadventure and a talent for social embarrassment.
People go on about how Wodehouse's word is entirely lacking in sex. I must confess to feeling the first stirrings of desire after the knockabout moment when Aunt Dahlia walks in on Spode trying to murder Wooster in The Code of the Woosters and they all fall down. The lady lets her outrage rip:
'First I run into Spink-Bottle racing along the corridor like a mustang. Then you try to walk through me as if I were thistledown. And now the gentlemen in the burnouse has started tickling my ankle—a thing which hasn't happened to me since the York and Ainsty Hunt Ball of the year nineteen-twenty-one.'
And I have had a fatal fascination ever since for women who swear and slap the language around and can do belly-laughs.
It was in reading Wodehouse that I awoke to the erotic charge that words could carry, as this comment by Wooster on Roberta Wickham might prove:
Aunt Dahlia, describing this young blister as a one-girl beauty chorus, had called her shots perfectly correctly. Her outer crust was indeed of a nature to cause those beholding it to rock back on their heels with a startled whistle. But while equipped with eyes like twin stars, hair ruddier than the cherry, oomph, espieglerie and all the fixings, B Wickham had also the disposition and general outlook on life of a ticking bomb. In her society you always had the feeling that something was likely to go off at any moment with a pop. You never knew what she was going to do next or into what murky depths of soup she would carelessly plunge you.
I can say that I learnt more about syntax and writing from lingering over that paragraph for 10 minutes than from the many dreary hours spent communing with Wren & Martin. And then there were those days of hopping from dictionary to dictionary because I had read about somebody 'volplaning' out of the line of vision or committing 'barratry' and 'socage in fief'. I have cause to remember good old espieglerie (see above) too—that one beat all available sources and since someone suggested I look up the Oxford English Dictionary at a library far away, I blew an entire morning on the excursion. After having suffered years of boredom while I learnt nothing in nondescript schools, Wodehouse was a key that opened every door I put it to.
Strangely, this is a man who hasn't been given the careful consideration he deserves. I am not talking of ordinary academic attention—I don't know if not having undergraduates write lugubrious responses to questions on assumed identities in Wodehouse novels or not having Raghukul Tilak write a sturdy volume of bazaar-notes on PGW for those undergraduates is such a terrible loss. (Although I can't help feeling sorry for those who will have to wrestle with Howard's End without the gentle clarifications that reading Lord Emsworth and the Girl Friend alongside might provide.)
Those of his party, such as George Orwell, who defended him against his attackers after the wartime broadcasts, can only see his fiction as set in an unreal world, while Tharoor, in narrating his delight, can yet refer to his characters as "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". The inimitable feat that Wodehouse pulled off, that expert bending of time and space till they gave up and resolved themselves into a web of verbal textures, requires of the critic an equal gift and that is perhaps why all those who attempt to explain his appeal must be found wanting.