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(Continued)

Some Missing Ingredients in the Curry

In Plum’s narratives, we encounter American millionaires, French cooks, Russian peasants, Italian waiters, Spanish ladies and white hunters and huntresses who keep popping up in Africa. We also get to meet well-endowed American ladies who are on the lookout for castles which are owned by impecunious English gentlemen.

When it comes to India, we get introduced to military men, royals and others who narrate some juicy details or the other about that exotic land. He also gives us a sneak peek into the civil disobedience movement of Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of the Nation of India. Rabindranath Tagore’s dietary habits, like those of Mahatma Gandhi, get commented upon. Taj Mahal finds a mention.

Some of his characters are even desirous of trooping down to India to study its social conditions while some emulate the mystics contemplating on the infinite in caves in Himalayas or elsewhere. We come to know of some cities as well.

To Plum’s credit, he even quotes Rudyard Kipling, the India-born author whose works were inspired by his country of birth:

‘I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – girls are rummy. Old Pop Kipling never said a truer word than when he made that crack about the f. of the s. being d. than the m.’ (Right Ho, Jeeves)

But if he had wanted to, Plum could have used a number of other Indian resources to further enrich his narratives.

Alas, we do not find any mention of such literary figures as Kalidasa, besides Aryabhata or Ramanuja, the famous mathematicians. The four Vedas are nowhere to be found. References to India’s soft power comprising such aspects as spirituality, its multi-layered scriptures and various dance forms are sadly missing.

Above all, the mind-numbing diversity of the spirit of India is missing. Its wide spectrum of ethnicities, languages, beliefs, practices and cuisines is nowhere to be found. These are facets of India which have missed out on his wit and wisdom. It is indeed a delectable irony of sorts that this write up is labelled as The Indian Curry Dished Out by P G Wodehouse, even though it has not thrown up even a single reference to any Indian dish!

Imagine a distraught Gussie Fink-Nottle pining for Madeline Bassett and sending messages to her through clouds passing overhead, a la ‘Meghadut’, the classic poem penned by Kalidasa. Poets like Ralston McTodd would have been found drawing some inspiration from the creative outpourings of Tagore. Personalities like Indian scientists and mathematicians would have helped some sleepless guardians of the peace – like Constable Oates – to improve their methods of investigation, improving the prospects of their being noticed by Scotland Yard. To improve Bertie’s intellect, all Florence Craye had to do was to insist that he peruse at least one of the chapters of the ‘Bhagavad Gita’. Laura Pyke could have drawn some inspiration from the science of ‘Ayurveda’, the healthy-lifestyle system that people in India have used for more than 5,000 years. Anatole could have been found whipping up ‘chhole bhature’ or ‘dosa’s!

Yoga could have helped someone like Ashe Marson to treat his clients suffering from acute dyspepsia to heal faster and better. Sir Roderick Glossop could have gone about advising his loonier patients to make meditation an essential part of their mundane lives. Vicars could have lived a happier Thos-infested life while brooding on spiritual tenets dished out by Indian scriptures, thereby becoming hotter at their jobs. George Bevan, while working on one of his next musical comedies, could have been drawing inspiration from the ‘Natya Shastra’ of Bharata Muni. Gentlemen aspiring for India rubber legs could have been practising such dance forms as ‘Kathak’ or ‘Bharatnatyam.’

The possibilities are endless. The mind boggles. But one would do well not to be concerned with what might have been. Instead, the focus needs to be on the rich legacy Plum left behind for us to rejoice in.

A Consistent Depiction, Despite 1947

The India that Plum would refer to belongs to an era which is long since bygone. India gained independence in 1947, but his works published during the period from 1947 (Joy in the Morning) till 1974 (Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen) do not reveal much change in his imagination. If one were to compare allusions to India based on Wodehouse’s works published before and after 1947, one notices a singular consistency. Astral bodies, scorpions and cobras continue to rule the roost.

The insignificance of the year of India gaining independence from the British Raj in Plum’s works has its own merits. Much like the relationship between Bertie Wooster and Tuppy Glossop, which soured for some time when the former was forced to take a dip in the water even when suitably attired, a friendly spirit of joie de vivre appears to have prevailed and both countries have moved on.

Malcolm Muggeridge, who was an editor of Punch, had spent two extended periods in India, once during 1923-26, as a lecturer in English at a college in Kerala, and then during the early 1930s as an assistant editor of the Statesman. According to Ruskin Bond, he is reported to have said that ‘the only real Englishmen to be found in the world were to be found in India.’    

Many enlightened Indians who take a broad view of things, or those who were born much after 1947 and have not suffered the birth pangs of their country, admire the Crown rule for having left behind a rich legacy in terms of a legal framework, a bureaucracy, a railway network, partial linguistic proficiency in English and a fine army with its own traditions. The genesis for such a legacy to have come about could have been rooted in stark commercialism and a stiff-upper-lip-type control over the people, but that need not distract us from the fine institutions created and left behind by the British in 1947.  

But many others, especially those who have been exposed to the personal trauma of partition which ended up displacing an estimated 10 to 20 million people along religious lines, or their descendants who have heard the horror stories of those trying times, and many others, would speak of the manner in which Indians of yore were exploited by the British. They would lament the decline of their country’s share in the global Gross Domestic Product from roughly 27 percent in the 1700s to roughly 3 percent in 1947. (Sources: Wikipedia and a talk by Dr. Shashi Tharoor, a famous fan of Plum’s and a Member of Parliament of India, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OB5ykS-_-CI)

In the present scenario, both the countries, the erstwhile rulers as well as the ruled, enjoy a healthy and vibrant relationship. Even during the two World Wars in the 1900s, Indian soldiers had made the supreme sacrifice, supporting the British/Allied forces. Over time, close to 150,000 soldiers are said to have died while supporting the wars fought by the Empire. A private sector steel company in India had produced rails much to the satisfaction of the rulers. Sure enough, there were mutinies, internal skirmishes and episodes of non-violent civil disobedience, but there were clear signs of good collaboration between the two even prior to 1947.

In any case, it should come as no surprise that Plum maintains consistency throughout his canon while using Indian condiments for the curry he serves. During 1947, the Indian subcontinent was undergoing some major changes. But these did not register on the Plumsville radar.

From a global perspective, the devastation caused by the Second World War (1939–45) was then the main area of concern, rather than the fact of India gaining independence on 15 August 1947. Plum had personally suffered in his life owing to political developments then and had relocated from Europe to USA during April 1947, never to visit Europe again. One believes that the press in the USA had then covered the fact of India gaining independence rather prominently, probably because it was the first significant nation to have gained independence from the British after the USA, which had achieved the feat some 171 years earlier, in 1776. However, due to his preoccupation with other matters then, perhaps the last thing on his mind would have been the British (or American) reaction to the events unfolding in India. Hence his storylines and characters never touched upon the emergence of an independent India.

Even though his works do not offer any commentary on the politics of the day, at times he does not refrain from deploying the communist ideology to amuse and entertain his readers. Psmith brims over with socialist ideas. George Cyril Wellbeloved has strongly communistic views. At one stage, even Bingo Little becomes a member of the ‘Red Dawn’. Roderick Spode happens to be a born crusader and revolutionary. Vanessa Cook leads protest marches and appears to be gravitating towards politics by chance. Stilton Cheesewright, who is otherwise content being a vigilant guardian of peace at Steeple Bumpleigh, gets egged on by Florence Craye to pursue a career in politics.

(Continued)

Notes:

The inspiration for this essay comes from the scholarly work done by Ms. Masha Lebedeva, who had earlier whipped up a research paper entitled The Russian Salad by P. G. Wodehouse.

The author expresses his sincere gratitude to an eminent expert on Plummy matters for having spared the time to go through a part of this composition and provide insightful suggestions. Some fans of P. G. Wodehouse have also suggested improvements in its contents.

Thanks are also due to Mr. Suvarna Sanyal for dishing out the main illustration in Part 1; also, to Ms. Sneha Shoney, who has edited the text.

Those of you who wish to cruise through this essay in its entirety may kindly write to akb_usha@rediffmail.com for a PDF version of the complete document to be mailed to them.

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The Indian Curry Dished Out by P. G. Wodehouse (Part 7 of 9)

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