Monday, May 30, 2011

Arul Mani on P.G. Wodehouse

Arul Mani writes divinely about Wodehouse in Caravan:

Who reads Wodehouse in India and why?
For a long time, I knew nobody who did actually read Wodehouse. Undergraduate boredom caused me to insert myself into Bangalore’s quizzing scene in the late 1980s, and that is where I came across live Wodehouse fans for the first time. Their conversations began unexceptionably—which book was their favourite, Wooster or Blandings, and so on—but deteriorated rapidly after that into mantric call-and-response routines. I remember very clearly an exchange between two grizzled veterans where one raised his snout to the sky to bellow the words, “Forty- five minutes if it lasted a second?” and received in no time the response, “Heppenstall’s sermon on Brotherly Love!” I don’t know if this has anything to do with anything, but both men were Bengalis. The former respondent then assumed the same quivering-nostrils attitude to deliver the even more puzzling phrase, “Begins in a low minor of two quarter-notes in four-four time, and ends in a shower of accidental grace-notes?” upon which the other smote himself in the chest and decimated all eardrums in the vicinity with a lusty rendition of “Pig-hoo-o-o-o-ey”, the infallible pig-calling formula that Lord Emsworth is taught by a kind soul. Their exchanges were punctuated with bursts of shrill laughter that began as fairly domestic whinnies before tailing off into hyena-sounds.

The Wodehousian in India is typically either some archaic monster that causes terror each time it digs its dactyls deep into a shuffle-bag of plum metaphors and phrases, or it is a pip-pipsqueak, an accumulator of period mannerisms and verbal tics.

1 comment:

km said...

(Disclaimer: I haven't read PGW in, oh, I don't know, two decades?)

Fun read. But can I also say that I'm sometimes perplexed by why some people read so much into it.

Wodehouse is the literary equivalent of a well-written TV sitcom. It's funny, it's gentle, it hits all familiar beats (and it's reassuring.) And maybe for a group of English-speaking Indians, there is nothing else out there - on TV, film or book - that does what a good Wodehouse novel does.

(Also, being the cultural snob, I recommend open-minded PGW fans explore Japanese Kyogen theater. The "clever-butler-and-bumbling-goofy-master" is a very popular dynamic in Kyogen plays. Those plays just *kill*.)