Speaking in tongues: Why India loves PG Wodehouse P G Wodehouse (Getty Images).
Radhakrishna N S
By Amit Roy
ENGLISH author PG Wodehouse is loved all over the world, but in India he has an especially devoted following.
Ben Schott is a 46-year-old British journalist and author who received rave reviews for his first Wodehouse novel, Jeeves and the King of Clubs. He has just published a second, Jeeves and the Leap of Faith, and has a theory as to why Wodehouse is so popular with Indians.
He reckons it is all to do with India’s love of the English language, which today is no longer a foreign tongue despite posturing by some nationalistic politicians. Along with “Bollywood Hindi”, it is really India’s link language.
Speaking from New York, where he has been spending lockdown, Schott says: “I think there’s a real sense in which the ludic, playful, fun, slang nature of language plays into an Indian sensibility of fun and playful language. And, you know, a great turn of phrase is a very Indian thing.
“I personally think it’s about the words and the phrases as much as it’s about the plots and the absurdity. To me it’s about the language and I’ve always thought Indian English has a real playful, creative, colourful spring in its step. And I think maybe that’s the link.”
Schott has never been to India, but was due to pay his first visit to the country earlier this year when, no doubt, his sessions at the Jaipur Literary Festival and the Kolkata Literary Meet would have been packed out.
“Tragically, I had to cancel my visit after the death of my father-in-law,” he says. “I very much hope to make new plans.”
In the first novel, Schott “leads Jeeves and Wooster on an uproarious adventure of espionage through the secret corridors of Whitehall”. In the second, “the Drones Club’s in peril, Gussie’s in love, Spode’s on the warpath and Oh, His Majesty’s Government needs a favour. I say – it’s a good thing Bertie’s back!”
The second novel begins with Bertie Wooster agreeing to having his Mayfair flat decorated, but Jeeves does not entirely approve of his master’s choice of wallpaper for the bedroom, for example. Jeeves thinks “Periwinkle Chevron is really most soothing” and that it “combines delicacy with elegance”. But Bertie insists it should be “Jorrock’s Jaunts and Jollities”, holding up “a hunting scene replete with foxes, hounds and horsemen in pink”.
“What do you think, Jeeves?”
“I think, sir, it would suit the saloon bar of a rural public house?”
“Au cointreau (sic). It is spirited and chipper, and will cheer me every morn.”
No marks for guessing how this battle of wills is going to end.
At the Drones Club, meanwhile, where Bertie decides to dine, there is a crisis on two fronts. Bertie’s chum from school, Gussie Fink-Nottle, has broken up with his fiancée, “a spirited lass by the name of Emerald Stoker”, because she has shown a distinct aversion to his beloved newts.
The committee of the Drones – Boko Fittleworth in the chair, flanked by Barmy Fotheringay-Phipps, Stilton Cheesewright, and Bimbash Kidd – was meeting to discuss the club’s financial predicament, a demand for £100,000 in back tax.
Indian accountants will be amused to learn that the committee’s idea of “long-term capital growth underpinned by portfolio diversification” involved “hedging a number of hefty equine bets with wagers on Wimbledon, Henley, the Eton- Harrow match, and Freddie Bullivant’s performance in the inter-club snooker”.
The problem is summed up eloquently: “The letter in Stilton’s paw was from the Commissioners of His Majesty’s Inland Revenue who had adjudicated, most unsportingly, that the investment committee had erred in declaring gambling losses as a deductible business expense. Since this had been club policy for generations, more than half a century of back tax and compounded fines were now due.”
Schott’s two novels have been written with the blessings of the Wodehouse estate. “Writing a Wodehouse novel is, I mean, it’s like being lent the Crown Jewels, you know, you want to polish them,” he acknowledges. “You don’t want to drop them.”
He emphasises that he is not trying to copy Wodehouse, but is writing “in parallel with ‘Plum’”. Each of Wodehouse’s characters “speaks with a different voice, cadence and vocabulary”, he adds.
“Nobody uses language like him. He’s got 1,525 quotes in the OED [Oxford English Dictionary] and 26 first usages.
“When penning my homages, I approach the keyboard not with a grand, personal vision, but as a deadly serious frivolity,” Schott explains.
“The aim is to create a fabulous, literary ‘Heath Robinson machine’ – deploying all of the pulleys, levers, and lengths of knotted rope offered by the Wodehouse oeuvre to create the finest, funniest, and most charming Wooster works possible.
“I aim to eschew caricature, pastiche, and, most banal of all, parody.
“This means respecting his rhythm and rhyme, and not over-reaching. Wodehouse was a genius. I merely scribble in the great man’s shadow.”
Schott has set the tales in the same period as Wodehouse. “Fans of Jeeves and Wooster will immediately get that it’s set in the same time period and with the same characters.”
He has made it a point not to depict Bertie as a complete buffoon, but endowed him with a fair bit of intelligence. “I actually think he’s smarter than people think. I don’t think Jeeves would spend 11 novels or 35 short stories with a complete buffoon. If Bertie was an idiot, and he wrote the books like an idiot, we couldn’t read them, they would be terrible.”
Schott was introduced to Wodehouse, arguably the greatest comic writer in the English language, in his childhood. “They were read to me by my father [when I was] in bed. He would read to me at night and he could do the voices. My father refused to read books that he didn’t enjoy himself. Whether I understood all of that I’d be very surprised.
“But it was really the love of the language, just the incredible silliness of it all. And the fact that silliness was taken seriously, and it takes a craftsman like Woodhouse to write something that is sort of evanescent but actually has real structure and thought.”
Both of Schott’s Wodehouse novels seem perfect for lockdown: “Reginald Jeeves first stepped onto the page in 1915 – in the middle of the First World War. Since then he and his irrepressible master have offered the penicillin of comic sunshine to millions – ameliorating tragedy and uplifting triumph.
“As we await an end to this terrible trauma, I wonder if the world has ever needed Jeeves and Wooster more?”