On P G Wodehouse, or How an English Literary Chappie Became My Favourite Author – Economic and Political Weekly

On P G Wodehouse, or How an English Literary Chappie Became My Favourite Author – Economic and Political Weekly

On P G Wodehouse, or How an English Literary Chappie Became My Favourite Author – Economic and Political Weekly 150 150 Alan Dickson

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What is it about P G Wodehouse that endears his writing to a particular section of Indians?
Read a P G Wodehouse or two,” the heroine of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy is told, as she faces impending heartbreak. Seth’s Lata Mehra bonds with both, her Oxford-educated suitor Amit Chatterji and her best friend Malati, over a shared love for P G Wodehouse. I too have reached for Wodehouse when I have needed a bit of cheering up—a day in bed with the flu, say, or a bad exam result. I
encountered my first Wodehouse, Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen (1974), when I was in secondary schoolI forget the details of the plot, but they involved Wodehouse’s most famous creations, the affable but “mentally negligible” member of the idle rich, Bertie Wooster, and his gentleman’s personal gentleman, Jeeves. I was hooked. Wodehouse, or Plum as he was nicknamed, wrote stories about the Edwardian upper class and their minor inconveniences. Bertie Wooster did not have a real job, but he did have an Aunt Agatha who “wore barbed wire next to her skin” and “eats broken bottles.” Through the series, Bertie gets in little scrapes involving fiancées, aunts, the occasional canine and various colourful characters, and Jeeves steps in to rescue him. Another set of stories is set in Blandings Castle, where the eccentric Lord Emsworth lives with his large family and prize pig, Empress. Yet others feature the smooth-talking, monocle-wearing Psmith, who might address you as 
comrade” if he ran into you in London. Over the years, I worked my
way through all the Wodehouse stories in my local library, and reread them in college and in my professional life. Wodehouse has been there for me through illness, heartbreak and other general tough times. His prose can soothe the angriest temper, provide courage to the most run-down, and make the happiest days seem—remarkably—just that little bit better.

I am not the only Indian with a soft spot for Plum. A quick Google search informs me that Wodehouse societies and re-enactments are alive and well all over the country;indeed, a prominent Indian politician was once president of a Wodehouse society in university. So why do so many of us Indians, fictional or otherwise, have such a fondness for a most decidedly English author? Or, in my case, why is
Wodehouse my preferred source of comfort reading and not, say, R K Narayan? I could say it’s his way with language, or the silliness of the situations his characters find themselves in, or the way that they always have a happy ending. Wodehouse provides, at the very least, a gentle chuckle, if not a great big guffaw, in every bit of writing, while avoiding all mention of serious, real-life events like the world wars or the Spanish flu. I love his wordplay and his clever subversion of literary devices, and it is rare to find a book that doesn’t make a reference to Shakespeare or Keats or another literary chappie, as Bertie might say.

But while I can’t pin down a single reason for why I love Wodehouse, I do know the reason I can love Wodehouse. Much has been argued on the English language in India and how we Indians may not be quite as bilingual as we may imagine. Any time I chuckle at Bertie Wooster’s misquoting of Hamlet, I am reminded that (i) I know who Hamlet is, and well enough to laugh at an inside joke, and that (ii) I am nowhere as familiar with, oh, the Silappadikaram in Tamil or Abhijnana Shakuntalam in Sanskrit. Much has been written about English language education and what it means for those who read and think in “native” Indian languages. Knowing English—indeed, knowing enough English to read such a quintessentially English author—has granted me access to an exclusive club of other English speakers for whom English is the language of leisure and entertainment. And I must admit, English is not just the language I am most comfortable speaking in, it is also the language I think in and exist in. If I were to sit down and channel my inner Plum, I would write in English, and not one of the three languages I claim to speak. After all, English is the language of entertainment and leisure, and of social mobility and privilege. My other languages—Hindi, Tamil, and Malayalam—are, well, there. I dare say that this is at least partly true for many other Indians who love Wodehouse, whether real (like yours truly) or fictional, like Amit and Lata in A Suitable Boy. Indeed, over many years, we Indians have made English our own. So much so that the Microsoft Word app on which I wrote this piece allows me to select “English (India)” as my default language.
If I were to go a bit further, I’d say that it isn’t only our comfort with the English language, but our lack of discomfort with the more anachronistic and unsettling parts of Wodehouse’s world that allow us to enjoy his work so much. Take, for instance, The Code of the Woosters (1938), which features a country estate, a spectacularly wealthy American who buys said estate, a PG-13 romance, and an aunt involved in a battle to buy an antique silver cow-creamer. Re-reading it after several years, I found myself squirming at Wodehouse’s casual use of the N word to refer to blackface minstrels. Rarely do we find a main character who must actually work for a living, and we would also be hard-pressed to find a Wodehouse story that passes the Bechdel test—the women in his stories tend to be of the intimidating aunt variety, or part of some elaborate marriage plot. Wodehouse takes the existence of all manner of butlers, valets, ladies’ maids and cooks for granted. I can’t help wondering: perhaps we class- and caste-conscious, English-speaking Indians are a little too comfortable with this social hierarchy.
It isn’t as if we are short of funny writers in English here in India. R K Narayan, for instance, wrote several sweet and gentle stories set in the fictional South Indian town of Malgudi. But look closer, and there is a vital distinction: 
Narayan may capture the sweet ordinariness of human nature, but his Malgudi is no Blandings Castle. Narayan’s characters deal with real-life problems, such as poverty, or terrifically boring jobs or even Emergency-era family planning. In Malgudi, you are forced to confront the ugliness of everyday Indian life—the blazing sun, the dust, the garbage, the banality of it all. Narayan might treat his subject matter with compassion and charm, but he doesn’t shy away from the ordinary struggles that his characters face; he can be funny and poignant. And for me, a teenager who did not need to worry about money or food or the challenges of Emergency, Narayan’s writing could often feel like a reminder of how privileged I was.

Wodehouse’s world shielded me from that guilt. To read about Blandings Castle or the Drones Club is to retreat into a world of low-stakes fantastical adventures, where the worst that can happen is meeting a silver cow creamer stealing aunt, or losing a bet on a horse race, and there is always a happy ending put in place by a superhuman valet or a chef with a magic touch. Wodehouse’s world is an escape from reality, and it is my privilege that lets me afford and enjoy that escape.
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