As a student, Shashi Tharoor was responsible for the revival of the PG Wodehouse Society at St Stephen’s College, Delhi. The society was disbanded a few years after he graduated. This was because, one day, women’s underwear was found, “flying at half mast” on the cross atop the college chapel. This, apparently, was part of a practical joke competition organised by the PG Wodehouse Society. Tharoor insists this was after his time because, while he was there, the college admitted no women students. Also, he said, that since he had written the by-laws of the Society, he knew that all pranks had to be vetted by a faculty member.
This was one of the many anecdotes that emerged during the session titled The Wodehouse Effect on Day 3 of JLF2018.
Why are Indians so fascinated by PG Wodehouse, a quintessentially British writer? During an hour of discussion, Shashi Tharoor, Swapan Dasgupta, and Philip Norman managed to provide absolutely no answers to that question.
There was some bickering along the way. Dasgupta suggests that the appeal of Wodehouse is somewhat like that of Rudyard Kipling. Tharoor vehemently disagreed about equating a colonialist like Kipling to Wodehouse. The two later agreed that Wodehouse was unquestionably one of the most amazing wordsmiths to have graced the world of writing in English. Still no insight into why Indians love him so much.
But that was not disappointing in the least. Philip Norman’s ability to effortlessly quote Wodehouse kept everyone in splits.
Norman quoted this exchange between Bertie Wooster and Jeeves verbatim, to well-deserved applause:
“‘Good evening, Jeeves,’
‘Good morning, sir’
This surprised me.
‘Is it morning?’
‘Are you sure? It seems very dark outside.’
‘There is a fog, sir. If you will recollect, we are now in autumn – season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.’
‘Season of what?’
‘Mists, sir, and mellow fruitfulness.’
Norman’s ability to quote Wodehouse was matched by his stories of the man himself: When Norman visited Wodehouse in New York, they were driven to the latter’s home by his wife Ethel – known as ‘Bunny’. She kept hitting the pavement as she drove. “We bounced our way there,” he said.
The only mention of colonialism in a conversation about a British writer was when Tharoor quoted Wodehouse as having said, “The day when 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.” He then quickly pointed out that the comment was only to be taken as a joke, and not literally.
Even as the lack of humour and wit in public discourse was mourned, there was some disagreement between Tharoor and Dasgupta about where on the political spectrum Wodehouse would fall. “He was definitely a conservative,” said Dasgupta, something Tharoor disagreed with, prompting Norman to quip, “These guys have managed to bring politics into a discussion on Wodehouse!”