Why India fell for the code of Wodehouse

Stephen McClarence – The Independent

Copyright The Independent
The British left nearly 60 years ago. But one vestige of their legacy endures ñ Indiaís love for the creator of Jeeves
MR P. S. DWIVEDI explains how to find his Delhi apartment. ìTell the taxi driver that itís before the slum colony,î he says.
Up on the eighth floor of a concrete high-rise, I find the retired history lecturer at St Stephenís College, part of Delhi University, and staff advisor to its Wodehouse Society, smoking a beedi, a pungent roll-up cigarette.
The apartment has a lingering odour of lunchtime curry. Itís a dashed rummy place to be talking about Bertie Wooster. I have come to explore the curious Indian obsession with P. G. Wodehouse.
Nearly 60 years after the nationís British rulers packed their bags and legged it home, his books are on sale in most bookshops, sometimes nestling nervously between Jeanette Winterson and Virginia Woolf.
Wodehouse never wrote about India, but sells better on the subcontinent than in Britain, with pirated copies in common circulation. He is one of the most heavily requested authors at the British Library in Delhi and there are clubs and internet chatrooms devoted to him.
Educated Indians look fondly back to the antics of the St Stephenís Wodehouse Society. Now disbanded, it ran an annual Practical Joke Week, that was abandoned only when the hoisting of the womenís basketball teamís shirts on a flagpole was deemed a silly-ass prank too far.
The clubís president in the mid-1980s, Thomas Abraham, is now president of Penguin Books India, the countryís largest Wodehouse publisher. ìWeíve all grown up with Wodehouse,î he says. ìItís a phenomenon here. When one of his books goes out of print, everyone goes ballistic. My publishing counterparts in the UK are very amused.î
In a country where most books in English sell fewer than 1,000 copies and 5,000 constitutes a bestseller, the corduroy-suited Abraham estimates that his company sells up to 70,000 Wodehouses a year: part of a thriving ìretro-marketî that ranges from Agatha Christie to Modesty Blaise.
Most Wodehouses are bought by middle-class Indians whose public school-like ìEnglish-Mediumî education arguably equips them to appreciate the authorís verbal virtuosity and literary allusions better than many Brits.
ìWodehouseís appeal is a pure sense of linguistic delight,î says Abraham, who has read ìabout 82î of his 85 books. ìIn the 1980s there was a debate about whether he was ëliteraryí or not, but the fact is that the books are a great read, laughaloud funny.
ìItís a whole world of clean, wholesome, escapist fun and parents here like to hand it down to their children. Todayís humour is fairly dark, but the appeal of these books for parents is: ëNo sex please, weíre Indianí.î
Back in 1945, George Orwell noted the booksí moral uprightness in his celebrated essay In Defence of P. G. Wodehouse: ìMost of the people whom Wodehouse intends as sympathetic characters are parasites, and some of them are plain imbeciles, but very few of them could be described as immoral . . . Not only are there no dirty jokes, but there are hardly any compromising situations.î
Orwell recalled meeting a young Indian nationalist who saw Wodehouse as a satirist of English society, ìan anti-British writer who had done useful work by showing up the British aristocracy in their true colours . . . On the contrary, a harmless, old-fashioned snobbishness is perceptible all through his work.î
That snobbery may contribute to another, less acknowledged, reason for Wodehouseís Indian appeal. Some educated Indians, particularly older ones, have a nostalgia for the ìBritish daysî. The books offer a chance to indulge that nostalgia, and are conveniently full of effete upper-class dimwits who conform to the Indian stereotype of their former rulers.
ìEven today, if you see parodies of the British here, itís still all ëWhat-ho-old-chapí plummy voices,î Abraham says.
His contemporary at St Stephenís, the writer and diplomat Shashi Tharoor, explores such ambivalent attitudes in a new collection of literary essays, Bookless in Baghdad. For him, Wodehouseís ìinsidious but good-humoured subversion of the language . . . appeals most of all to a people who have acquired English but rebel against its heritageî.
In his eighth-floor apartment, Mr Dwivedi has other theories about the authorís puzzling appeal in a country whose intellectual life is geared more to fervour than to froth.
The booksí comedy, he says, is welcomed in a culture whose own Hindi and Sanskrit literature is ìsadly lacking in humourî, and the characters are endlessly intriguing in a society that finds it hard to laugh at itself.
ìThe way they take everything so lightly is such a change from oneís own life here,î he says. ìMiddle class Indians donít like to appear foolish, even when they are. If you say something self-deprecatory, poking fun at yourself, people will think youíre an idiot and will rub it in.î
He first read Wodehouse as a child. ìI couldnít comprehend the way girls in the books would talk to their fathers about boyfriends. In our society, even if people are married, they should appear not to know each other and not be seen speaking to each other. There are still very few occasions when my wife and I have long conversations.î
He dismisses potential Indian parallels to Wodehouseís characters: Wooster recast, perhaps, as a young sahib; Jeeves as a trusted, though wily, bearer; bleary aristocrats as bloated maharajahs: ìWodehouseís characters are essentially harmless; the idiosyncracies of the rajahs and their sons were obnoxious.î
Aside from their literary appeal, Wodehouseís books have created some startling Indian misconceptions about Britain.
ìUntil I went there for the first time in 1998, my impression had always been that it was a great seat of tradition,î Abraham says. ìI thought every country house would have a butler, so it all came as a surprise. Though by and large, thanks to Trainspotting and The Full Monty, people are now aware of the other side of British life. And our notions have also been coloured by Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd.î
Over an impeccably English cup of tea, he confesses a fondness for Billy Bunter and Just William, and I finally get up to leave. ìTootle-pip,î he says. ìWith knobs on.î


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