The Wodehouse Effect: Why India Loves Jeeves

ZEE JLF@The British Library

Shashi Tharoor, Swapan Dasgupta and Tony Ring, moderated by Mihir S. Sharma

P.G. Wodehouse’s popularity has endured over the years and he is known and loved all over the world, especially India. Shashi Tharoor, former president of the Wodehouse Society at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University, discussed his legacy along with author Mihir S. Sharma, journalist Swapan Dasgupta and author Tony Ring.

Ring noted that Wodehouse quit his first job at a bank after just two years, to become a full time writer. “His writing concentrated on experiences, exaggerated, and with a little angst”.

Ring analyzed why Wodehouse appealed to Indian audiences so much, observing that the typical educated, upper middle class family in India was likely to speak English, but since books were expensive, they were handed down from one generation to another. Children ended up reading Wodehouse by default. Furthermore, “The nature of family life in the UK was not dissimilar to Indian English families with servants and big families: a main feature of Wodehouse’s writings, and so Wodehouse was automatically popular.”

Dasgupta observed that in seventies India, Wodehouse appealed to audiences who were comfortably well off, educated in the liberal arts and thought themselves different from the rest of India: “The ability of speaking the English language was our greatest access card.” Dasgupta suggested that contemporary audiences do not relate to Wodehouse, because his appeal lay within a particular, post-independence context.

Tharoor related how he revived the Wodehouse Society during his time at St. Stephen’s College at the University of Delhi. He argued that the magic of Wodehouse was not just restricted to a certain kind of ‘comfortable’ Indian audience, pointing out that the world depicted by Wodehouse was an idyllic never-never land, so it was as unreal to the English as to Indians, comfortable or otherwise.

“The only passport you needed to Wodehouse was the knowledge of the English language,” he said. Yet his very use of the English language, Tharoor pointed out, was a particular delight to the anti-imperialist, because it subverted all that you’re supposed to venerate about the language. “I read his books for the language, which I found delightful, as he played around with it.” Commenting on the lack of Indian language translations of P.G. Wodehouse, Tharoor suggested that perhaps Wodehouse didn’t translate well, because it is precisely the music of his language that is his appeal.

When questioned as to whether it was time to decolonize reading of literature, Dasgupta replied that decolonization should not be about the replacement of one kind of literature with another. In fact, he argued, under the guise of decolonization, a body of dogmatic texts was now being promoted, leading him to conclude that it was so much not literature but “The Indian mind” that was colonized after independence.

– By Srishti Chaudhary

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