PG Wodehouse’s most famous creation Jeeves was ‘Indian’
Was Jeeves actually “a disguised Indian”?`
This rather subversive interpretation of PG Wodehouse’s most famous creation has been offered by none other than the Indian High Commissioner to the UK, Vikram Doraiswami.
He was addressing the PG Wodehouse Society (UK) on the subject of “Wodehouse and India” and why “the Master” had more followers in India than even in the country of his birth.
Jeeves is, course, the “gentleman’s gentleman” to Bertie Wooster — not his valet as he is sometimes incorrectly described.
“Vikram”, as the High Commissioner prefers to be called, was speaking in London’s West End at the old world Savile Club, decorated with oil paintings of characters that could come from Wodehouse’s novels.
“Note that gentlemen must wear jackets, ties are preferred and no jeans or trainers are allowed,” said an advisory to members. It could have added: “You are allowed, encouraged even, to throw bread rolls.”
Vikram introduced the concept that Jeeves was desi by speculating on the future of Wodehouse novels.
“Perhaps one option is the way forward presented by the authorised new Wodehouse works that place in new context our familiar old friends and bring them into a new dimension of story-telling,” he said.
“The homage by Ben Schott, for instance, is superbly done. Are podcasts an option? The Master was famously unconvinced, as he found readings of his own work to be less than perfect.”
Vikram went on: “Is film or TV an option? Well made though most of the previous film efforts were, the nuance of Wodehouse was often lost in most of the serials and TV productions, although speaking personally I found the Hugh Laurie/Stephen Fry Jeeves and Wooster series the best of the lot.”
“Indeed, it is hard to visualise Jeeves now and not think of Stephen Fry —and I say this even though I am convinced that Jeeves was actually Indian,” he tossed in.
“Yes, really,” he declared. “Sift the evidence: in Right ho, Jeeves, we hear from Bertie that:
Jeeves doesn’t have to open doors. He’s like one of those birds in India who bung their astral bodies about — the chaps, I mean, who having gone into thin air in Bombay, reassemble the parts and appear two minutes later in Calcutta.
“Hence, my final conclusion,” the High Commissioner said. “Frankly, we love Wodehouse because, of course, his smartest and most celebrated character was a carefully disguised Indian, after whom even dry cleaning services have been named here in London!”
The Indian envoy gave several reasons why Wodehouse was more popular in India than in any other country in the world, including his own.
One was sheer demographics.
“If we go by the rough rule of thumb that some 10 per cent of our population speaks fluent English — yielding a modest 130 million souls (if you can count elites as people with souls) — we deduce that the Master is better known to a larger number in India (which, frankly, isn’t difficult given the fact that there are twenty times more Indians than Britons), than even in his home country.” Then came his clinching argument: “Indeed, as Malcolm Muggeridge said: the last Englishmen left in the world are Indian.”
The chairman of the PG Wodehouse Society, Tim Andrew, introduced the evening’s speaker by saying: “In what might be flippantly referred to as his day job, he is actually His Excellency the High Commissioner of India to the United Kingdom. And he’s one of many Woodhouse fans based in his country. And if I may, I will show very briefly how he has already shown himself to be the very best of eggs in the manner of his joining the society.”
When the High Commissioner’s office said His Excellency wanted to become a member in highfalutin diplomatic language and the reply from Andrew was similarly flowery, “Five minutes later, I got an email, if I may paraphrase, ‘No, stop it, stop it, I am Vikram, I want to join this absolutely wonderful society.”
“I joined before I became High Commissioner to the UK,” Vikram told his audience.
He said: “You are already well aware of the peculiar phenomenon that India presents in the world of Wodehouse: it is possibly the largest continuing market for his books, with singularly devoted fans, even though the country and its outsize place in the empire is conspicuous by its absence in his books.
“Wodehouse societies apart, India is still a country where one might find Wodehouse fans in the oddest of places….these include the not-so-gently-decaying Raj-era halls, libraries and tea-planters clubs, where one might expect to find well-thumbed copies of his books.
The Master is also to be found in swish bookshops of Lutyens’s Delhi, the malls of Bangalore and the Raj-era streets of Calcutta. Collected sets and new prints are still sold at India’s teeming airports at bookstalls; and at railway stations, and the vast jumble of second-hand booksellers that dot most old areas of our cities.”
There is also Indians’ love of literature. “Every book is redolent with the most brilliant sentence construction, and every word is perfectly suited to the point of its placement. While it would be a stretch to say that Indians read Wodehouse solely because of his literary craftsmanship, it is not incorrect to link this virtue to the long Indian literary tradition that prizes the simultaneous use of subtlety, precision and creativity in word-smithy.
“This tradition dates back to classical Sanskrit literature, in particular, the legendary Kalidasa — indeed, given chronology, we might describe Shakespeare as the English Kalidasa — but this tradition continues into the age of courtly Urdu and Persian, reaching its apogee with the genius of Delhi’s own Mirza Ghalib.
“The brilliance of a line that turns around and carries a sting in the tail, as it were, is particularly valued in Indian literary tradition. See, for instance, this line from Lord Emsworth Acts for the Best:
“Years before, when a boy, and romantic as most boys are, his lordship had sometimes regretted that the Emsworths, though an ancient clan, did not possess a Family Curse. How little he had suspected that he was shortly to become the father of it.”
And contrast it with Ghalib’s famous line:
Oh Lord, it is not the sins I committed that I regret, but those which I had no opportunity to commit.
There are echoes of Wodehouse in Bollywood, said Vikram. “Indeed, in general, Bollywood long reflected the advice offered to Sally (in The Adventures of Sally), that ‘chumps always make the best husbands… all the unhappy marriages come from the husbands having brains. What good are brains to a man? ’What indeed, one is tempted to say.”