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….
Educated Indians look fondly back to the antics of the St Stephen’s Wodehouse Society. Now disbanded, it ran an annual Practical Joke Week, that was abandoned only when the hoisting of the women’s basketball team’s shirts on a flagpole was deemed a silly-ass prank too far.
The club’s 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.”
Some foreigners have seen in Wodehouse’s popularity a lingering nostalgia for the Raj of Kipling. Malcolm Muggeridge once remarked that “Indians are now the last Englishmen.” The very notion is, of course, more fatuous than anything Wodehouse himself ever wrote. Wodehouse is loved by Indians who loathe Kipling and detest the Raj and all its works. Indeed, despite a brief stint in a Hong Kong bank, Wodehouse had no colonial connection himself and the Raj is largely absent from his books. There is only one notable exception I can recall from his oeuvre, in a 1935 short story: “Why is there unrest in India? Because its inhabitants eat only an occasional handful of rice. The day when Mahatma 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.” But Indians saw that comment was meant to elicit laughter, not agreement.
Messrs Tharoor and Abraham will be pleased to know that they share their admiration of the man who immortalised aunts, pigs and drones with none other than George Orwell.