Why Do We Read PG Wodehouse?

A personal, idiosyncratic and autobiographical answer

01 June 2011

KOREAN ILLUSTRATOR Swan Park's cover for the recently reissued PG Wodehouse best-of compilation, What Ho!—featuring a man and a swan flapping at each other with equal energy—took me back to Jeeves and the Impending Doom, the first Wodehouse story I read after several years of wanting to.

When I was eight years old, my parents would frogmarch me every morning between March and June to the neighbours', where I simmered under adult supervision till I was reclaimed—an extreme measure required because it was summer vacation time, because I was a bit of an arsonist, and because I had attempted, several times, to assassinate my kid sister. The neighbours had no entertainment to offer except the textbooks which their several college-going offspring never threw away because the English exams were a bit of a lottery. I ploughed through every one of those volumes paying equal attention to the contents thereof as to the little bits of classroom memorabilia lodged within—indecipherable doodles, scribbled comments and the occasional dried peepal leaf on which there would always be two names hopefully entwined within a series of repeated hearts.

Robert Lynd, the Anglo-Irish writer, continues to be dearly beloved as a model essayist among those who compile university textbooks in India. I chanced upon an essay on habits kickstarted for Lynd by a waiter who restored him and a lost pack of cigarettes to each other's society—the waiter had noticed that the author tended to tear open his stack of smokes in quite an individual way. Lynd said something about the man being 'a real-life Jeeves'; when I looked at the glossary it threw 'valet' and 'Wodehouse' at me. The essayist had hinted at Jeeves' magical abilities, but the name that Wodehouse borrowed for his manservant from some county cricketer fascinated me more—it rolled off the tongue like no other, and seemed to taxi towards a stop with the sleek self-possession of an airplane. And so it became my mission that summer to knock on every door in our street to ask if they had books with Jeeves in them. As streets went, this one throbbed with character; it was home to four retired high school headmasters, two engineers, our Goan landlord and three ruddy-faced personages named this or that D'Souza who owed their perennial jollity to the magic wrought by the exchange rate on the pensions they received for services to the African arm of the British Empire. Between them, they had acres and acres of library, and yet not one of them had heard of Wodehouse or Jeeves, a fact that will puzzle me till my dying day.

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    Arul Mani teaches English at St Joseph’s College, Bengaluru.

    Keywords: Bangalore PG Wodehouse Jeeves Wooster NPR Tharoor