In Britain, 100 years after PG Wodehouse published his first book, he is regarded as a cult author redolent of a vanished age. But in India, he has never gone out of fashion. Shashi Tharoor explains
It was at the Hay-on-Wye Festival of Literature a few years ago that I realised with horror how low the fortunes of PG Wodehouse had sunk in his native land. I was on stage for a panel discussion on the works of the Master when the moderator, a gifted and suave young literary impresario, began the proceedings by asking innocently, “So how do you pronounce it – is it Woad-house or Wood-house?”
Woadhouse? You could have knocked me over with the proverbial feather, except that Wodehouse himself would have disdained the cliche, instead describing my expression as, perhaps, that of one who “had swallowed an east wind” (Carry On, Jeeves, 1925). The fact was that a luminary at the premier book event in the British Isles had no idea how to pronounce the name of the man I regarded as the finest English writer since Shakespeare. I spent the rest of the panel discussion looking (to echo a description of Bertie Wooster’s Uncle Tom) like a pterodactyl with a secret sorrow.
My dismay had Indian roots. Like many of my compatriots, I had discovered Wodehouse young and pursued my delight across the 95 volumes of the oeuvre, savouring book after book as if the pleasure would never end. When All India Radio announced, one sunny afternoon in February 1975, that Wodehouse had died, I felt a cloud of darkness settle over me. 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, but his death still came as a shock. Every English-language newspaper in India carried it on their front pages; the articles and letters that were published in the following days about his life and work would have filled volumes.
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 like one who had “drained the four-ale of life and found a dead mouse at the bottom of the pewter” (Sam the Sudden, also from that vintage year of 1925).
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 who was to go on to become a counsellor to the prime minister of India, 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 souffle to Bocuse. 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: PG Wodehouse is by far the most popular English-language writer in India, his readership exceeding that of Agatha Christie or John Grisham. 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 familiar to, and beloved by, most educated Indians. I cannot think of an Indian family I know that does not have at least one Wodehouse book on its shelves, and most have several. In a country where most people’s earning capacity has not kept up with inflation and book-borrowing is part of the culture, libraries stock multiple copies of each Wodehouse title. At the British Council libraries in the major Indian cities, demand for Wodehouse reputedly outstrips that for any other author, so that each month’s list of “new arrivals” includes reissues of old Wodehouse favourites.
In the 27 years since his
Source: The Hindu