PG Wodehouse, creator of Jeeves and Bertie Wooster, was the most English novelist imaginable. His comic world was old-fashioned well before he died 45 years ago – crammed with disapproving aunts in hats, eccentric aristocrats and wealthy young men about town getting into scrapes.
But he has countless fans around the world – not least in India, a country Wodehouse never set foot in.
Navtej Sarna had a highly distinguished career in the Indian Foreign Service. There were stints as ambassador to both London and Washington DC.
But before that he spent a short time with the Indian industrial conglomerate Tata. He recalls the final paper of the entrance exams, which he sat in 1980. Applicants were required to select one essay to write from various options supplied.
“I looked unhappily at this list of rather involved economic and business topics,” he says, “all of which I knew I might struggle with. And then I was saved by the last one: ‘A Wodehouse a Day Keeps the Doctor Away’. So that’s what I wrote about and it got me the job.”
It might seem odd that 40 years ago a massive South Asian business concern would assume job applicants might still be familiar with such utterly English works.
In fact Pelham Grenville Wodehouse (1881 – 1975) became an Indian favourite even as quite a young writer – though he never went there and he barely mentions India in 71 of his novels or in his many short stories. Yet he was read there avidly and his most popular books still sell in English-language bookshops.
‘I just fell in love’
Sarna says being taught in schools in India where the teaching is all in English his first reading in the 1960s wasn’t so different from that of British children a few years before – Enid Blyton, Jennings and Billy Bunter.
“But I began to outgrow them and then I discovered Wodehouse. It wasn’t difficult because my father had at least 40 of his books – I just fell in love with his characters and humour and especially with the way he used words. I think that may be his appeal for English-speaking Indians – his delight in the English language.
“We had old Penguin paperbacks and some of the original hardback copies published in London by Herbert Jenkins like Uncle Fred in the Springtime. We read them so much as a family that we had to go into the market in Dehradun and ask to get them rebound – they were falling apart.
“Although the English left after independence (in 1947) there was still a close intellectual linkage with India’s English-speaking administrative and professional class. The fondness for Wodehouse was part of that.
“I think one must admit that the world has changed and people under 40 now are perhaps less likely to read him in India. They exist in a world of iPhones and Netflix and social media – perhaps Wodehouse is too much from a different time.”
Keeping the flame alight online
Another long-standing fan of Wodehouse is Sushmita Sen Gupta. She lives in Delhi but has been a member of the UK Wodehouse Society almost since it began. She agrees with Sarna that younger Indians now have less time for the gentle comedies of Plum Wodehouse, as he was known. (Indian fans refer to themselves as plummies.)
“But the positive news is that in other ways the internet helps we plummies too. India is a vast country with a vast population so it used to be that fans could only discuss their Wodehouse addiction with their family or a few friends,” she says.
“Now we have online groups and even in lockdown we’ve been keeping our Wodehouse discussions going online.
“I grew up in a house stuffed with books in English and in Bengali. My mother wanted me to read English classics such as Charles Dickens. But I had two uncles who were just mad about PG Wodehouse. When I was 10 or 11, I was given one of his books – I think it was the school story The White Feather. I’ve never stopped reading him and I read the biographies too.
“I remember that Wodehouse inspired my uncle to tell us the best way to say goodbye was always to say ‘ta ta, chin chin, toodeloo’. So it’s what we always said. We loved it and now I’ve been collecting his books for half a century, since I was 14.”
Small screen adaptations
In Britain there is a hard core of Wodehouse readers, intermittently replenished whenever TV throws out a new clutch of adaptations.
In the mid-1960s the BBC adapted the Jeeves and Wooster stories with Dennis Price and Ian Carmichael in the lead roles of the series The World of Wooster.
Between 1990 and 1993 ITV had a real hit with the series Jeeves and Wooster, with Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie widely praised for their performances. The most recent series was the BBC’s Blandings in 2013. Perhaps surprisingly, it’s decades since Wodehouse characters starred on the big screen.
Sarna thinks an overlap remains between British humour and the humour enjoyed by Indians who grew up speaking English at home and in school.
“I know people sometimes say the world Wodehouse described hasn’t existed for many years. As I grew up, I think I realised that his world had perhaps never existed at all,” he says.
“But for instance, families such as mine would play the board game Monopoly and we would see street names such as Piccadilly and Pall Mall – it all seemed part of the same world as Wodehouse with its clubs and the bobbies in their helmets and the red London buses.
“There are generations of Indians who grew up with an affection for those things. Later on in life you realise that much water has flown. But it doesn’t change the fact that a book like The Code of the Woosters is an absolute classic with sheer joy in his use of language.
Aunts, clubs and tea
“And as I grew older I appreciated what you might call the non-ideology of his books. There is almost no politics, except in a few brief satirical mentions. It’s a never-never world without problems. The nearest you get to a tragedy is someone losing a hat or their hot-water bottle being punctured.
“So much of the detail has echoes in India: we have our aunts, we have clubs – and of course we love drinking tea. A valet like Jeeves would also be excellent but I don’t think that’s very likely.”
Sen Gupta draws a parallel with a more recent comedy popular on Indian TV.
“There was an Indian version of the BBC series Yes, Minister called Ji Mantriji. The administrative class which runs the Indian bureaucracy adored it because exactly the same jokes worked here too.
“It’s the same with Wodehouse – there’s a real sense of the absurd and little bits of satire you might not expect. Maybe before 1947 Indians enjoyed the fact he was making fun of the English ruling class – but we see ourselves in his comedy too.”
Sen Gupta is looking to social media to keep interest in Plum Wodehouse going in the future. “We had a thriving Yahoo group but these days mainly we use WhatsApp. A few years from now probably the contact will be in some new way not even invented yet.
“It would be sad to think his readers in India will all grow older and die off. And probably the audience will grow smaller – but I am sure there’ll always be Indians to adore his humour and language and that innocent sense of fun.”