The popularity of P.G. Wodehouse among Indians is two-fold. One, his readers do not have to identify with any of his characters. Two, his 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.
VALENTINE’S Day has just passed. Twenty-seven Valentine’s Days ago, I was sitting in my college room at Delhi University when All India Radio announced that P.G. Wodehouse had died. It was a typically sunny February afternoon in Delhi, but I felt a cloud of impenetrable darkness. 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; yet his death still came as a shock. 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 the bereavement keenly.
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, Ramu Damodaran, 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 soufflé to Madhur Jaffrey. 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: P.G. Wodehouse was at that time by far the most popular English-language writer in India, his readership exceeding that of Agatha Christie or Harold Robbins. 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 — as readers of this piece will attest — familiar to, and beloved by, most educated Indians. I cannot think of an Indian family I knew that did not have at least one Wodehouse book on its shelves, and most had several.
Many abroad are astonished at the extent of Wodehouse’s success in India, particularly when, elsewhere in the world, he is no longer much read. Americans know Wodehouse from a highbrow television show, “Masterpiece Theatre”, and reruns of earlier TV versions of his short stories, but these have a limited audience, even though some of Wodehouse’s 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, in the West, Wodehouse “seems to have lost his general audience and become mainly a cult author savoured by connoisseurs for his prose artistry.” While no English-language writer can truly be said to have a “mass” following in India, where only two per cent of the population, after all, read English, Wodehouse has maintained a general rather than a cult audience; unlike others, 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 Edwar
Source: The Hindu