Although he may no longer be eagerly sought out by the reading public in the country of his birth, P.G. Wodehouse enjoys an enviable degree of popularity in India. Every so often I come across reports and articles puzzling over why a long dead British humorist from a long lost era continues to charm a couple of generations of modern Indians who have very little fascination (outside the academic world of literature and history) with the likes of Kipling or the culture of colonial England. Here is an excerpt from the transcript of a report on NPR that I found while searching for Wodehouse: (Do listen to the audio recording of Mandy Cunningham eavesdropping on a group of Wodehouse fans in Bangalore, India)
CUNNINGHAM: These people have gathered to share their love of the works of the comic novelist and satirist P.G. Wodehouse. Each person have adopted the name of their favorite Wodehouse character.
RAHM(ph): My name is Rahm, and I go by the name of Smith, Rupert Smith. Smith preferred to use big, long words. You know, he would use 20 words in a sentence when five would suffice. It's an eccentricity of sorts, but I felt that it's something that I would like to talk myself.
CUNNINGHAM: The group, like many others around India, knows everything there is to know about Wodehouse. They know that he was born in England, that he spent most of his years in the United States, becoming an American citizen, and that he wrote short stories, lyrics for musicals and almost a hundred novels. The reason they're so well informed is that most of them, like Narupa(ph), was introduced to Wodehouse at a very tender age.
NARUPA: When I was about nine or 10, there was this Indi series on TV, and I remember my father was so disgusted with the adaptation that from his office library, he handed out a copy of "Leave it to Smith" and made my sister and me read it.
CUNNINGHAM: Most of the group cut their teeth on stories about Wodehouse's most-famous characters, the erudite gentlemen's gentleman Jeeves and his affable but buffoonish aristocratic boss Bertie Wooster, depicted here in a BBC adaptation.
(Soundbite of BBC program)
Then there was this article I read more than three years ago, attempting to analyze Wodehouse's peculiar hold on middle class India's imagination.
Up on the eighth floor of a concrete high-rise, I find the retired history lecturer at St Stephen’s 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. It’s 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 nation’s 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. ....
....The club’s [St Stephen’s Wodehouse Society] president in the mid-1980s, Thomas Abraham, is now president of Penguin Books India, the country’s largest Wodehouse publisher. “We’ve all grown up with Wodehouse,” he says. “It’s a phenomenon here. When one of his books goes out of print, everyone goes ballistic. My publishing counterparts in the UK are very amused.”
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 “retro-market” that ranges from Agatha Christie to Modesty Blaise. Most Wodehouses are bought by middle-class Indians whose public school-like “English-Medium” education arguably equips them to appreciate the author’s verbal virtuosity and literary allusions better than many Brits.
“Wodehouse’s appeal is a pure sense of linguistic delight,” says Abraham, who has read “about 82” of his 85 books. “In the 1980s there was a debate about whether he was ‘literary’ or not, but the fact is that the books are a great read, laugh-aloud funny.
“It’s a whole world of clean, wholesome, escapist fun and parents here like to hand it down to their children. Today’s humour is fairly dark, but the appeal of these books for parents is: ‘No sex please, we’re Indian’.”
Back in 1945, George Orwell noted the books’ moral uprightness in his celebrated essay In Defence of P. G. Wodehouse: “Most 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.”
Orwell recalled meeting a young Indian nationalist who saw Wodehouse as a satirist of English society, “an 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.”
I don't know that one can accurately point to a national trait, history or culture to explain why Wodehouse is loved by Indians. I happen to be a long time Wodehouse fan but not for some of the reasons described in the Times article. The nostalgia for the Raj, the butler, the pucca sahib culture of the gymkhana etc., none of them works for me. I think I know what I find so charming about P.G.W. - mainly his extraordinarily adept linguistic calisthenics, for sure. And perhaps also what Orwell said. Although I am perfectly at home with dark brooding humor, searing satire, biting badinage and cutting edge cleverness, there may indeed be something oddly comforting about a prodigious body of literary work which has no sex, no serious love, little existential angst and very few moral dilemmas. One of my favorite posts here is on Wodehouse, one that I wrote soon after I launched this blog. I am bringing it to the front for new readers.
Happiness and P. G. Wodehouse
In an otherwise unrelated article by Christopher Hitchens, the erstwhile brave contrarian and now a pathetic neocon prevaricator, I came across this statement:
George Galloway Is Gruesome, Not Gorgeous
By Christopher Hitchens
My old friend and frequent critic Geoffrey Wheatcroft once tried to define a moment of perfect contentment and came up with the idea of opening a vintage wine while settling down to read an undiscovered work by P.G. Wodehouse. ...........
This brought back memories of an interesting, chance encounter aboard a London to Houston flight in the autumn of 1999 and the uncommon pleasure of reading P.G. Wodehouse. The gentleman sitting next to me on the plane was an older English man of great wit and charm. Very early in our conversation I found out that he was a member of the P.G. Wodehouse Society and was traveling to a Wodehouse conference in Houston. Wodehouse in Houston! I am a huge Wodehouse fan, as are many among my friends and family. But I had not until then met a single Houstonian, including my book club friends, who had read him. My co-passenger, J.F, then revealed that apart from being a die-hard fan, he was also a researcher and publisher of rare and undiscovered writings of Wodehouse. Upon learning of my own devotion to the author, he presented me with a book by P.G. Wodehouse, "A Man of Means", published in 1991, of which I knew nothing. He had discovered this little known work (first published in the Strand magazine in 1914) among Wodehouse's early manuscripts and obscure magazine publications. J.F. and his friends published the stories (with the original accompanying illustrations) in the form of a brand new book through his own publishing company, Porpoise Books in Maidenhead, England. I was suddenly the proud owner of an "undiscovered" work of Wodehouse! Upon reaching home, I proceeded to enjoy it with relish (without the accompanying vintage wine, recommended by Hitchens' friend). I own several books by Wodehouse published by larger, better known publishers like Penguin Books but this little book, (not Wodehouse's best), is a treasure among them because of the totally unexpected way in which I came to own it.
Reading Wodehouse is a bit like eating potato chips - you can't stop after just a few, highly addictive when you begin to enjoy the process and once you are finished, there is nothing substantive you can say about the experience except a sense of pure, silly satisfaction. Wodehouse was the un-Orwell -- able to transform the bleak and the solemn to jolly and cheerfully banal. Fans of Wodehouse will understand what I am talking about and those who haven't tried him, should find out. Although Jeeves and Bertie Wooster are the better known Wodehouse characters, to the uninitiated I recommend starting with the capers of Psmith ("The p is silent, as in phthisis, psychic and ptarmigan"), a lively and enterprising young man who always has a scheme (mostly for making money) and invariably fails, with hilariously disastrous results.
The main character Roland Bleke in A Man of Means, the "rare" Wodehouse I mention above, has the opposite fate - he does not want money, but wealth pursues him relentlessly. I think the author tried Bleke as a model for a long running theme, found him unsatisfactory, reversed the circumstances and struck gold with the perennially penniless Psmith.