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Jeeves in India: Why Does India Love P.G. Wodehouse?

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The air is ablaze in the 49 degrees of New Delhi's summer afternoon. My shirt is soaked and the linen sticks to my back. The lifts at Himachal Towers are out of order. I am visiting the offices of Ganesh Property Developers on the ninth floor to witness something incredible; a PG Wodehouse re-enactment club in India.

The painfully thin boy guarding the lift doors tells me it has been this way for the past year or so. Clerks, doctors and bureaucrats enact scenes from Bertie Wooster every Tuesday lunchtime. Being Indian, I know too well of the fascination we hold for our tweed-clad British icons.

This one takes the biscuit.

The landing walls are paan stained. It is lunch hour. On the fifth floor I smell aaloo curry and on the seventh; pao bhaji.

Mahesh, the bookkeeper, greets me at the modest door. His hair is slicked back with chameli oil. A well groomed salt and pepper beard hides a yellow paisley cravat. A loud booming voice carries itself across the room, "What ho Mahesh!" It is Dr. Chandra. He shall be playing Jeeves.

The room is threadbare. It is 12 feet by 20 feet of spartan furnishings. Nine chairs are in a semicircle around a wooden table, one of its legs considerably shorter than the other. As a prelude to the drama to be staged, a thin shaft of sun lights the ridiculous gavel on the table.

The play-actors take their seats as Dr. Neenkari coughs mild manneredly and sounds the gavel.

His white kurta-pyjama is spotless; blinding virtue in the heat and dust of New Delhi. His elephantine ears are pricked in concentration as he goes through his draft. It is a wonder that he can read through those taped up thick black glasses. He is the very picture of a Gandhian philosopher; one that proposes Blandings Castle and Elsewhere as the book of the day.

"And, Baxter, my dear fellow," said Lord Emsworth, "you might telephone to Doctor Bird, in Market Blandings, and ask him to be good enough to drive out. I am sorry, Freddie," he added, "that you should have met with this accident; but - but everything is so - so disturbing nowadays that I feel - I feel most disturbed."

There was beautiful irony in the whole arrangement; the manicured privets and rhododendrons of Blandings' for the austere simplicity of chipped plaster, cane chairs and a splintered table.


Walking down the whitewashed Connaught Place in central New Delhi, I couldn't help but marvel at doctor sahib. Save for the hide-and-seek mauve socks of a vague regimental pattern, Dr. Neenkari sported no other eccentricities that betrayed a parallel universe of tiddlywinks, prized sows and stolen cow creamers.

There are various Wodehouse clubs and societies sprinkled all over India. In her gullies and lanes and hamlets and suburbs, surely the country must hide ever more bizarre societies. Ayn Rand perhaps? Agatha Christie? A Hercule Poirot Tasche Twirling Society?

Penguin, among other publishers, sells a bumper stock each year. It tills the masses of middle-class Indians planting yet more seeds of Wooster Love. On the other hand, Wodehouse is not that popular in Britain. Modern Britain shies away from her feudal past that India so readily embraces. Exceptions are of course Downton Abbey, Upstairs and Downstairs and Gosford Park, all acclaimed productions and resplendent in their silken finery; rare fragile delights than the sheer candy-floss exuberance of Jeeves and Wooster.

So, just why is it that we Indians love our Woosters and our Fink Nottles? It could just be the anglophiles' chai-lao nostalgia of the Raj, or maybe it is just an old darn habit. The most probable though is that the Wodehouse novellas contain that upper-class twittery that the caste conscious Indian middle-classes relate to very well.

The babus and sahibs employ aayahs and bhaiyyas; maidservants and handymen whose unquestioning loyalty to their masters is reflected in the feudal understanding between Jeeves and Wooster. There is that aspirational warmth of the chesterfield dandy, of a stately income and most importantly of a pukka solid social standing.

"In to dinner." She smiled at the sight of his bewildered face. "I'm afraid you don't know much about the etiquette of the new world you have entered so rashly. Didn't you know that the rules of precedence among the servants of a big house in England are more rigid and complicated than in English society?"

Dr. Neenkari calls out to a chaiwallah by the road. The boy is no more than a 10 year old waif.

It is while serving the doctor sahib that he spills some milk. Without hesitation or pause for thought he whips out a tea towel from under his arm and sets about polishing Dr. Neenkari's soiled loafers. The doctor sahib with his books slung under an arm takes a sip of the chai. "Jolly good. Jolly good chai Mr. Deo."

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PG Wodehouse: A Life in Letters edited, By Sophie Ratcliffe