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There are indeed instances in one’s life which leave one shaken and stirred. Scales fall from one’s eyes. Like Bertie Wooster, one feels befuddled, bewildered, fazed, flummoxed, and perplexed. The reality of one of the several facets of life gets revealed, much like a mountain making a reappearance once the fog has vanished and the sun has come out in all its glory.   

While travelling in a local train in Switzerland recently, I had a rather unpleasant experience when a gentleman of Swiss origin ridiculed me for being an Indian.

It happened on the 1st of January 2023. The family had boarded a train to Lucerne to enjoy the fireworks display in the evening hours. Few stops before Lucerne, very many people boarded the train. We are used to overcrowding in trains in India, but this was a new experience for me – to see this happening in one of the advanced countries. I was already sitting on one of the few spring-back chairs available.

A gentleman, surely cast in the mould of Roderick Spode, had just come in along with many others. He looked at me sternly and asked me to get up. I got up and enquired if the gentleman wanted to occupy the seat. The gentleman clarified that he had asked me to stand up so that there is more space for others to squeeze in. So far, so good. But then he went on to give me a supercilious look and added rudely that such things happen only in India.

The basic message from the gentleman was right, but the rude and insulting way he said it hurt all of us. The fact that he insulted my country really hit hard. My daughter-in-law and my son intervened to say that he could have discussed this cordially, rather than being abrasive about it. But he went on arguing about it, claiming that he had spent a good deal of time in India and knew about how things worked there. Other passengers nearby kept telling us to avoid listening to his comments.

To give him a benefit of doubt, perhaps he had had a fight with his wife before leaving home that evening. However, a realization also dawned – that beneath a veneer of polite manners and sweet smiles, quite a few people in other countries may carry some deep-seated prejudices against those of Indian origin.

Jeeves would concur with me if I were to say that our psychology is such that when we love something, we somehow feel entitled to criticize it and make fun of it. But when someone else does it, we take offence! We are left twiddling our thumbs. I confess this is what happened to me on the day. I felt deeply embarrassed and wondered what I had done to deserve a treatment of this kind.

I admit I am a bit fluffy headed and forgetful, but by no stretch of imagination can I match the high standards set by Lord Emsworth in that department. I found it very difficult to forget this incident. On the contrary, it made me recollect many earlier instances when I did not have a satisfactory response to some meaningful and thought-provoking questions asked about India by those living abroad.

  • A cabbie in New York asking me as to why the government in the country was against Muslims and Christians.
  • A tourist from Canada who had just returned from India asking why the cab drivers in most parts of the country tended to either overcharge or harass customers. I wonder if she had ever lapped up the book ‘India and the Indians’, written by Lady Malvern who had spent some time in India.  
  • A young lady in Norway enquiring whether it was safe for her to travel to India alone. She quoted frequently reported rape and murder cases in the country she had read about.
  • Another lady in Sweden checking as to why Indians have a practice of shaming the victim in a rape case rather than putting the spotlight on the perpetrator of the crime.
  • A person of German origin asking if our metro cities did not have enough storm drains to ensure that periodic flooding did not take place.
  • A movie enthusiast of French origin enquiring why, despite the presence of a film certification body, people kept calling for boycotts of some movies. She wondered how Indians have become so intolerant, especially when they pride themselves on being an ancient civilization and have really demonstrated how to be a multi-ethnic society.
  • A teenager from Denmark asking why Indian households do not segregate their domestic waste and why the country lacks enough capacity to handle such waste.
  • A person from Denmark who asked me why India was so noisy.
  • A group of businesspersons from Finland wondering why it was far easier to deal with businesses in the west and the south of India than with those in the north of the country. Some of them said they had been cheated by the latter.

What I quote above happen to be snippets of conversations with lay citizens of different countries, spread over the past few years. Those of us who believe we have already acquired the status of a Vishwa Guru – A Global Teacher – and who are swayed by the nationalistic fervour so very fashionable in India these days, may immediately jump to enquire who gave the rights to people in advanced countries to judge India and Indians. They might even suspect and allege a global conspiracy to defame India.

It is no one’s case that our First World countries happen to be perfect. Of course, these suffer from many ills. Graffiti in public spaces is a common sight. So are cigarette butts in otherwise pristine public gardens.

But the point here is that if we Indians can ape the west in terms of fashion, social relationships and in so many other ways, why can’t we do something about the kind of courtesy we show to tourists and fellow citizens in public spaces? Why do we need a Prime Minister to tell us to improve our levels of hygiene and keep our public spaces spick and span? Why can’t we respect the law, rather than priding ourselves in breaking it? Why do our political parties depend on criminals to win over the voters? Why do justices of our Supreme Court have to get involved in ensuring that road safety standards improve across the entire country? Why are we worried about elections and inane internal issues when an enemy is gleefully usurping our territory on our borders? The mind boggles.     

We live in a multipolar world where interdependence between countries is an essential fact. Yes, as a country, India remains a work-in-progress. But we have tremendous soft power, whether in terms of our ancient scriptures, rich culture, music, dance, movies and the like. The diverse cuisine we have is popular across all countries. When it comes to frugal engineering, we shine on the global stage. The manpower we offer to the world is unique in many ways.

It is surely not wrong to be proud of our heritage. Nor is it improper to demand respect from others. But to remain blissfully unaware of our weaknesses and to do nothing to address the same will simply go on to ensure that chinks in the Brand India armour continue to fester.

A sister of Bertie Wooster’s lives in India. It follows that he would be gravely concerned about this situation. Perhaps, he may seek Jeeves’ advice on the issue. If so, I wonder if Jeeves would recommend a public relation campaign to improve India’s brand image worldwide. He may also suggest a mass communication drive within the country and ways to make a genuine effort to improve our civic infrastructure. Someone like Rupert Psmith may get one of his rich uncles to buy out a premier media house in a western country.

But the nub of the matter is that we, the Indians, need to indulge in a bout of introspection, and work upon improving our own civic habits and our behaviour towards others. The buck stops at us!

(Illustration courtesy R K Laxman)

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China’s actions to keep violating its borders with India with impunity continue unabated. So do its endeavours to create a ‘string of pearls’ around India. Time will tell if its plans to become a global superpower fructify, but when it comes to its southern neighbour, it may never be able to win over the hearts of Indians.  

Rewind to 1962

India observes National Solidarity Day on the 20th of October every year. This day is observed to honour her Armed Forces. China had begun its assault on India on this date in 1962, giving a good thrashing to Indian forces which were ill-prepared then to meet the challenge.

As a child of around 10 years then, I still remember the kind of patriotic fervour which had sprouted amongst the country’s citizens at the time. Tension in the air. Ears glued to the news bulletins of All India Radio. Blackened windows at home. Stocking of groceries. Half-blackened headlights on all the motorized vehicles. Patriotic songs at school. Movement restrictions. People rushing to train stations to convey their best wishes to departing jawans. Blankets, woollens, medicines, and jewellery being openly donated to strengthen the country’s response.  

Not surprisingly, Bollywood had unleashed its soft power to counter the aggression. At trade fairs and other public spaces, a song, Awaaz do hum ek hain, featuring some of the popular heroes of the era, was getting shown.

What followed were visits by popular stars to the frontier, cheering up the jawans. And, of course, the immortal song, Ae mere watan ke logon, rendered by Lata Mangeshkar in the presence of Jawaharlal Nehru, at a function in January 1963.

Movies like Haqeeqat (Chetan Anand, 1964) brought the harsh reality of war to our cinema halls.

Cut to the present

Beginning on the 5th of May 2020, Chinese and Indian troops engaged in aggressive melee, face-offs, and skirmishes at different locations along the Sino-Indian border. In late May, Chinese forces objected to Indian road construction in the Galwan river valley. According to Indian sources, melee fighting on the 15th/16th of June 2020 resulted in the deaths of many Chinese and Indian soldiers. A low-voltage conflict persists till date, with occasional flare-ups across the border having become the norm.

This time round also, Bollywood has not failed us, but in a different way. The patriotic fervour is not getting whipped up. Instead, nationalistic sentiments appear to be already occupying the centre stage. Increasingly, it appears as if the soft power of Bollywood is being deployed to keep our attention away from the predatory tactics of our northern neighbour.

In 2020, the suicide of one of Bollywood’s popular stars, Sushant Singh Rajput, and his alleged girlfriend Rhea Chakraborty, kept us riveted to our television screens, conveniently forgetting the attack on our territorial integrity and even the raging pandemic.

These days, an unsavoury and inane controversy has been whipped up around the colour of the bikini worn by a Bollywood diva in a song of a movie which is scheduled to get released in January 2023. Sure enough, such issues as an aggression on our borders, galloping inflation, increasing unemployment, rising social distrust and polarization, and more people having gone down the poverty line in India have got swept under the carpet. The voyeuristic eyes of the so-called sterner sex of our species are having a field day. As luck would have it, the movie has ended up grabbing our eyeballs much before it would hit the screens.   

We appear to be living in an era of strident nationalism, backed by attempts to keep the fire of communal disharmony burning bright, ostensibly with a view to encashing the same for electoral gains for the ruling dispensation. We keep playing the victim card favouring the majority community to the hilt, painting the minor ones in villainous shades. Patriotism appears to have taken a backseat in our mental space.  

Of movies and patriotism

Amitabh Bachchan, a doyen of the industry, had made some insightful observations at a public function recently. He had spoken of the way in which the movie industry had always stood up against oppression of any kind, right through the days of British occupation of India in the past. For your ready reference, here is the link to his speech which I refer to:

He bemoaned the jingoism and imaginary historical movies which are in tandem with the current political discourse and even referred to the boycott culture which appears to be making light of the formal system of film censorship which India follows.

In a way, Vijay, the disgruntled hero of the iconic movie Pyaasa (Guru Dutt, 1957) was very much like the Vijay of Deewaar (Yash Chopra, 1975), played by Amitabh Bachchan himself. Both stood up against the traditional norms of society. Ganashatru (Satyajit Ray, 1990), mentioned by the renowned actor in his speech referred to above, gave us hope that howsoever rotten the system may be, the youth stand up to support a fair and just approach to problem solving.      

Bollywood deserves to be commended for the staple diet of opium it keeps dishing out for the Indian masses. However, this time around, the support of a pliant media, backed by a motivated use of social media channels, appears to be magnifying its endeavours at keeping us engaged, entertained, and enthused, enveloping us in a kind of selective amnesia, putting some critical issues on the backburner.

A time for some introspection?

In one of his articles, Prof Badri Raina had distinguished between nationalism and patriotism as under:

Nationalism enjoins upon us to believe that our air is the most salubrious, our water magical, our sunsets and sunrises uniquely blessed, our accumulated histories and legends superior to those of all others, our culture the only worthwhile culture, our religious faiths nearest to god, and our stores of knowledge beyond compare.

Patriotism acknowledges that where I live is my beloved space, warts, and all. It makes no claims to exceptionalisms that are thought to be God’s unique gift to us. It recognises that our streets are shabby, our lanes full of clutter, our habits shoddy, our resistance to rationality often grossly debilitating, our defiance of law a routine habit of mind, our male chauvinism shameful and violent, our casteism or racism or communalism deleterious to the most desirable ideals of human rights and human oneness.

While the dragon keeps giving us the chills at the borders, our trade relations continue to show a heart-warming trend. Total merchandise trade between India and China rose 34% to $115.83 billion in the 12 months to March 2022, according to data from the Commerce Ministry released to parliament some time back.

Time for us, the denizens of India, to look within and check if we have lost our innate sense of patriotism; or have we outsourced our thinking prowess and discriminatory powers, thereby losing our ability to sift the wheat from the chaff? Have we got used to getting distracted by inane internal issues and resigning to a relentless bullying by China thus? Can we demolish the narrow walls we have built around ourselves and take a strategic call on meeting external challenges of this kind?

Hopefully, our dynamic government is already working on the same.

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William Faulkner is reported to have said that “The past is never dead, it’s not even past.”

Partition, or rather the tearing apart of India into three parts circa 1947, has always been a theme of enduring interest. To those who lived to tell the diabolical tales of their survival, it brings back a flood of memories, awash with deep-seated regrets and a sense of deep loss of one’s original home and hearth. Hence the title Hiraeth, meaning a longing based on a feeling of helplessness of not being able to revisit a place.

To their succeeding generations, it is a valuable record of the trauma of the planet’s biggest mass migration on record. It also captures the endurance and resilience of the human spirit, of an innate will to live and prosper, and of keeping the descendants isolated from the traumatic pain and suffering of their preceding generations.

Just like the graphic works of Saadat Hasan Manto, Khuswant Singh and many others, Hiraeth captures the agony, the suspicion, the cruelty and the madness that pervaded the air in those turbulent times. A commendable endeavour, indeed.  

The stories, based on the experiences of the author’s grandparents and other seniors in her family circles, capture not only the courage and sacrifice but also the generosity of the human spirit. These are written with a piercing beauty, alive with moral passion and sorrowful insight.

However, a word of caution may be in order. Picking up and going through the book needs nerves of chilled steel. It took me close to three years to build up the courage to get a copy. I could then devour the stories only one at a time. Each one of them, so very poignantly written, made me either sob uncontrollably or cry. Identifying with the main characters was apparently my undoing. Suffering the pain and deprivation they underwent.

Somewhere, a father was killing his own daughter so as to protect the family honour. Elsewhere, a recently widowed lady was able to release her inner grief only when she came across the turban cloth of her late husband.

Some offered solace as well. A just-orphaned kid getting breast-fed and adopted by a lady who has undergone the trauma of giving birth to a stillborn child of her own, their different religions notwithstanding.

The last story touches upon the ripple effect of a parent’s decision on the next generation. It goes on to demonstrate that partition, though the term in itself is a highly sanitized version of what really transpired then, is not so much an event in the past, but one that continues to influence the descendants of those who survived it. Those displaced and uprooted have stood up, shaken off the dust of negativity from their feet, taken control of things and ensured that the coming generations did well in their life and career. But the scars remain.  

Thanks to the efforts put in by the publishers, the book is well presented. Urdu titles of stories have been beautifully calligraphed, adding a unique charm to the text. The use of common terms to address parents, grandparents and other relatives in Hindi/Punjabi language bring the stories closer home. The cover itself says a lot, though, at first glance, one does not appreciate it.

At the end of it all, the book does lead one to feel more anger and even more anguish. Is there a way to avoid such tragedies in future? Can our leaders not be more prescient and take better control of things? As human beings, we pride ourselves on our technological achievements. But do we care to dismantle the invisible walls that exist between us? Could we widen our consciousness in such a way as to avoid conflicts and wars? Could we not instead channelize our collective energies towards addressing environmental challenges that we, as a race, face?

One may well ask if there is any point in remembering yet again what one cannot forget in a lifetime. Perhaps, a closure lies in moving towards mutual acceptance of culpability, a joint mourning for the lives we took, the attendant horrors we inflicted upon each other and then go in for mutual forgiveness. However, it is easier said than done. Wounds of the flesh heal; not so with the mental scars. Thus, the cycle of violence continues unabated. It suits our politicians to keep stoking these dormant embers.  Often, we end up being mere puppets in their hands.

In fact, this is the larger purpose the book serves. It reminds us of our past follies. It makes us sit up yet again and start wondering as to how to take better care of ourselves and our brethren. It prompts us to build bridges wherever needed and break down the walls of our biases and prejudices. It shows us the futility of treating those different from us as ‘others.’ It exhorts us to use our individual intellect to judge if what we are doing is right, not to be led astray by jingoism, chest thumping and wars.

I am reminded of a song which Talat Mehmood had rendered in his velvet-like soothing voice long time back:

Hein sabse madhur woh geet jinhen hum dard ke swar mein gaate hain…

Roughly translated, this says that the songs which are the sweetest are the ones which are set to the melody of sorrow!

It is in this spirit that this book deserves to be picked up, devoured and brooded upon. 

About the Author:

Dr. Shivani Salil, MD, calls herself a voracious reader, in love with words – both written and spoken. She used to work at KEM Hospital, Mumbai, until some time back when a geographical move pushed her into a sabbatical. She currently resides in Hong Kong with her husband and daughter.

As a child, she harboured two dreams: one, to become a doctor and the other, to pursue literature so that she could become a writer. Having lived and loved her first dream, this book is a step forward towards the second.

Get to know more about her on her website http://www.shivaniwrites.in and her Facebook page http://www.facebook.com/shivaniwrites18.

Availability of the Book:

In India: https://www.amazon.in/Hiraeth-Partition-Stories-from-1947/dp/8194132622

In US: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07WRLTGLC

In UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B07WRLTGLC

In Canada: https://www.amazon.ca/dp/B07WRLTGLC

In Australia: https://www.amazon.com.au/dp/B07WRLTGLC

In Germany:
https://www.amazon.de/Hiraeth-Partition-stories-1947-English-ebook/dp/B07WRLTGLC

The book is available on Kindle as well and is free on Kindle unlimited.

(The book has been published by Room9 Publications (www.artoonsinn.com).

Goodreads:

Hiraeth: Partition stories from 1947 by Shivani Salil

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Along Came Love

Recently, I came across this wonderful site which has many delectable stories to narrate. Permit me to share this one with all of you.

FictionPur

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She was just an average young girl. Like 20 million others in India. Born in a loving middle class family, with normal pretty looks, average intelligence, a genuine heart and big dreams. Lofty aspirations fueled by movies and novels. Specially that of her future husband or boyfriend. All she wanted was a tall, dark, brooding, rich yet loving, possessive guy for herself. Nothing that can be termed as asking for much, if you ask her. But blame it on her deeply ingrained middle class values or lack of opportunities, the boyfriend phase never came in her life. She directly graduated to the matrimonial phase. And true to their word and ambitions, her parents swiftly found her a ‘suitable and nice boy’ as soon as she was of age.

And he was something she never thought she would ever end up with. Too sweet. Too understanding. Too accommodating…

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Can an organization’s human resource policies be so designed as to facilitate a bottoms-up approach to leadership? In other words, can it encourage and enable people at the lower rung to automatically assume a leadership role without anyone else egging them on to give their best?

It is well known that leadership is a function of at least two factors. The individual traits of an employee surely play a role. Another is the situation which could be such as to produce a leader. But for all the employees to spontaneously respond to a situation in an empathic manner in the face of an unforeseen crisis goes on to show that a share of the credit must also go to the design and implementation of conscious human resource policies.     

Consider the Mumbai Taj Hotel terror attack on the 26th of November, 2008. Not even a single Taj employee abandoned the hotel and ran away, but stayed right through the attack. They helped the guests escape. In the process, many employees died.

Eventually, this became an important psychology case study at Harvard. The result was a deep insight into the way in which the company’s recruitment policies had been designed. Three of the major factors which stood out have been as follows:

1) Taj did not recruit from big cities; instead, they recruited from smaller cities where traditional culture values still holds strong.

2) They did not recruit toppers; they spoke to school masters to find out who were most respectful of their parents, elders, teachers and others.

3) They taught their employees to be ambassadors of their guests to the organization, not ambassadors of the company to their guests.

For some details of what transpired during the terror attack and the Harvard study, please check out the following:

“The Ordinary Heroes of the Taj Hotel: Rohit Deshpande at TEDxNewEngland.”

The Tata group is well known for the values, integrity, transparency and fairness it practices while dealing with various stakeholders across all its business verticals. The response of its employees to the terror attack is merely one of the many manifestations of its enlightened human resource policies.  

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 A Tribute to Swami Vivekananda: Leader Extraordinary

“On the seventh of August 1941, in the city of Calcutta, a man died. His mortal remains perished but he left behind a legacy… that no fire can ever consume…”

That was the baritone, sonorous voice of Satyajit Ray in his documentary titled ‘Rabindranath’ created as a tribute to Rabindranath (a project mandated on Ray, the genius in film making, arts and literature, commissioned by Ministry of Culture, Government of India) on the occasion of the birth centenary of the another genius, Rabindranath Tagore the Nobel laureate poet, musician, novelist, dramatist, artist and philosopher. The first scene of the documentary depicted the last and final journey of Tagore to the burning ghat (crematorium).

Ray’s portrayal of Tagore began with the scene finale. But where do we start in our odyssey with the volcanic monk of India whose 150th birth anniversary we celebrated…

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What ho!

To the best of my knowledge and belief, P. G. Wodehouse never set foot on Indian soil. But he has often alluded to its exotic temples, its wildlife, its royalty, its fakirs and mystics with magical powers, and even its love lyrics. Many times he has vividly captured facets of my beautiful country, serving up a delectable curry spiced with uniquely Indian condiments.

In the essay under reference, the reader will find a random sample of references to India in Wodehouse’s novels and short stories. Such references are found across all his narratives, whether he is writing a Jeeves and Bertie story, a tale of Blandings, or a stand-alone novel. What I present here is merely a synopsis.

The Indian Curry: A Brief

  • In some of his novels, jewels associated with idols of gods in Indian temples get stolen, with overzealous priests chasing the villains.
  • Indian fauna such as spiders, scorpions, cobras, elephants, tigers, cheetahs and lions regale the reader across many of Plum’s narratives. Walking butlers like Beach get described as elephants sauntering through an Indian jungle. Princes and maharajas of yore also find a mention occasionally.
  • Plum suggests a link between the Indian Civil Disobedience movement and the dietary and fasting habits of Mahatma Gandhi. Bertie Wooster motivates Tuppy Glossop to forsake pleasures of the table by quoting Mahatma’s example. The Cawnpore (now Kanpur) Mutiny gets referred to in at least two places.
  • Military men who had served in India as part of their duties tell us interesting anecdotes about that distant land, including about their time in the North Western Frontier Province. Some of you may recall that the latter was a province of British India from 1901 to 1947, when it was ceded to Pakistan.
  • When Bobby Wickham takes umbrage, she ticks off Kipper like a typhoon on the Indian Ocean. Elsewhere, to impress a heart throb, the hero claims to have used a Boy Scout pocket knife to teach the sharks there a lesson or two.
  • Indian scriptures often use the Sanskrit term ‘siddhi’ to signify either a remarkable accomplishment or a singular proficiency attained by an aspirant. These could be material, paranormal, supernatural or magical in nature, attained by such practices as meditation, yoga and intense ‘tapas’ (austere practices).

Like much else, this facet of India is also used by Plum to amuse, elevate and entertain his readers. Jeeves, for instance, gets repeatedly portrayed as someone who possesses the property of a gas floating from Spot A to Spot B without much ado. Some characters undergo an experience akin to that of curling up on spikes while others are found contemplating the infinite.

  • Wherever Plum is, love cannot be far behind. India has gifted the world with the Kama Sutra, but it is not surprising that Plum never alludes to this unique treatise, because he never used sex as a ploy to popularize his narratives. All of his male characters are steeped in chivalry, strictly bound by Victorian norms.

In his narratives, Wodehouse appears to have instead based his observations on The Garden of Kama, a collection of lyrical poetry of Indian origin published in 1901, which makes liberal use of imagery and symbols from the poets of the North-West Frontier of India and the Sufi poets of Persia (Iran). The poems, written by Laurence Hope, a pseudonym of Violet Nicholson, are typically about unrequited love and loss. One of her famous compositions, known as a ‘Kashmiri Song’, appears in at least two of Plum’s narratives. 

  • India rubber is one name for the natural rubber that comes from the sap of certain trees. Rubber trees that grow in South America and India produce the majority of India rubber. Plum uses its properties of agility, elasticity, flexibility and robustness to cover a wide range of physical endeavours of the characters in many of his narratives.
  • Some characters have a fetish for remaining as fit as a fiddle. One of the instruments which they happen to depend upon to do so is a pair of Indian clubs.
  • Some of his characters have either visited India or plan to do so. While Lady Malvern whips up a book relating to Indians, Crispin Blakeney goes off there to deliver a series of lectures. Some of us may recall that in ‘Bertie Changes His Mind’, Carry On, Jeeves, Bertie Wooster tells Jeeves that he has a sister in India.
  • Indian handicrafts come up for a mention. So does Taj Mahal. Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore’s dietary habits get commented upon. Some behavioural traits of Indians get covered. The age old sordid custom of ‘sati’ gets touched upon, as do the Indian Civil Services. Stilton Cheesewright has the unique distinction of having come under the spell of Buddhism briefly.
  • The Luck Stone, a concoction whipped up by Plum under the pseudonym Basil Windham, was serialized in a magazine known as ‘Chums: An Illustrated Paper for Boys’ during 1908-1909. It touches upon Indian Vedas, mythology and superstitions.

Some Missing Ingredients

Plum’s works surely throw up several references to India. But if he had wanted to, he 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 Vedas do find a solitary mention but any other 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 specifically Indian dish!

As to a liberal use of many other resources of an Indian origin, 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. 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 has left behind for us to rejoice in.

In fact, it is befitting that quite a few of his works have been translated into some other languages – like Bengali, Kannada, Telugu and Sanskrit – forming a pale parabola of subtle humour across India.

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. Astral bodies, scorpions and cobras continue to rule the roost.

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. Owing 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.

Love sans Borders

The love for Plum’s oeuvre in the Indian subcontinent transcends any political considerations. Moreover, Plum sets a gold standard of pristine humour not only in English but also in many other languages into which his works have been translated, including in many regional ones in India.

Plum dished out his narratives in a pre-Internet era, when access to information was severely restricted. It is amazing that based mostly on secondary data, so to say, he could leave behind for us a spicy Indian curry, making India shine through in so many ways through a vast array of his novels and stories.

Pip pip!

Notes:

  1. Illustration courtesy Suvarna Sanyal.
  2. The full text of this essay can be accessed at https://ashokbhatia.wordpress.com/2021/08/31/the-indian-curry-dished-out-by-p-g-wodehouse.
  3. A version of this synopsis appears in the December 2021 issue of Jeeves, the annual journal of The Wodehouse Society in Sweden (WSS).
  4. A version of this synopsis also appears in the March 2022 issue of The Wooster Sauce, the Quarterly Journal of The P. G. Wodehouse Society (UK).
  5. A version of this synopsis also appears in the Autumn 2022 issue of Plum Lines, the Qurterly Journal of The Wodehouse Society, USA.

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ashokbhatia

The big and fat weddings which keep taking place all across the length and breadth of India are well known. These are occasions on which gullible parents, overjoyed by the prospect of finally getting rid of their respective wards, loosen their purse strings, showcasing their wealth, power and pelf.

Ostentatious decorations, lavish dinner spreads which could make Anatole raise his eyebrows a fraction of an inch, sumptuous upholstering of those in attendance and a chain of rituals which keep the hapless bride and the groom on their toes – all of these create an ambience which befits the social status of the well-heeled parents, making many others green with envy. It is another matter that such display of wealth often makes our tax sleuths sit up and take notice. The Bartholomews under their supervision promptly start sniffing around, their bare teeth on full display. Unless prompt steps are taken through…

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Bjorn Bergstrom, Sweden

Ashok, your excellent Indian Curry is really spicy! I can imagine how hard you must have worked on it to find all those references to India.

Chakravarti Madhusudana, Australia

P G Wodehouse never visited India. But even a first reading of his works reveals his affinity for India, Indians and Indian things in general. He may not be always complimentary about Indians and sometimes be even wrong, but his observations were totally without malice and always with an acute sense of the absurd.

In “The Indian Curry Dished Out”, Ashok Bhatia has made an extensive study of Indian references in Plum’s stories and novels. He has classified them into more than a dozen categories and presented them in a style that would be the envy of probably the master himself. I particularly liked the section “Missed Ingredients…” which hints at how PGW’s works might have been enriched by looking at other aspects of Indian culture.

This is a momentous work performed with great love and respect for Plum. I am sure it will be read with delight by Wodehouse fans whether or not they have an Indian background.

John Dawson, USA

This is a unique, delightful and informative essay. Of course I knew that Plum had referenced Indian matters quite a few times in his books, but the volume of these references you’ve included were surprising to me. You’ve done a superb job on an ambitious project! I don’t believe anyone has heretofore attempted to gather all of the Indian references in Wodehouse’s books. Please accept my congratulations for a lovely and worthwhile contribution to Wodehouse scholarship.  

Masha Lebedeva, Russia

The article is absolutely wonderful. It not only gives us a chance to enjoy Master’s humour again and again but also a possibility to look through Plum’s eyes at India’s history, politics and culture. Bravo, Ashok, great work!

Kartik Pashupati, USA

Excellent essay. It’s interesting that Plum’s cat was named Poona. “Poonai” is also the Tamil word for cat, although I doubt if that’s what he had in mind. It’s also worth noting that all of the references to gemstones and similar artifacts stolen from Indian temples are parodies of “The Moonstone” by Wilkie Collins, which is said to be one of the earliest detective novels in English.

Nikhil Rathod, India 

Thank you for the fascinating piece. It took me a while, but I finally finished all 50+ pages. You’ve really researched it!

A couple of things stood out to me:

– India was a huge part of British culture. More than PGW having a fascination for India, I got the impression he was just reflecting the popular culture. PGW was quintessentially English, which is reflected in his writing-style and stories. The references to India weren’t particularly knowledge about India.

– Speaking of “stories”, I’ve loved reading PGW. But, I always knew that the storyline or theme of most books never changed. Obviously, that didn’t lessen my enjoyment of his writing. Similarly, the references that you pointed out in your essay were also repeated in several books. The essay really illustrated this point.

I would have said, Happy Reading, in conclusion, but I don’t think we’ll find an author to compare. Again, thanks for sharing your essay.

Pradeep Swaminathan, India

Ashok has taken the pains book by book to correlate all facts that the Master has made about India. Right from the origins of Wodehouse Road in Colaba, Mumbai, to practically every single mention of anything connected with India. I was a small kid living in Colaba, in the early 60s, when my father was working for that very British institution – The Indian Railways. The colonial hangover still lingered. Colaba was where British India administered Mumbai and the surrounding areas. I still recollect the magnificent building we lived in – Beryl House. Just for the record the ICS exams were replaced with the IAS exams after 1947, so this British Structure is still very much there.

Back to Ashok. If and when he decides to share his essays publically do make it a point to delve deeply into them. How PGW without ever coming to India could garner so many facts about India amazes me. How Ashok has managed to pick each of these gems relate it to the book and give the references also amazes me.

Rajeev Varma, India

This is a fabulous collection of PGW’s literary rendezvous with the Indian curry – scorpions, cats, cobras, fakirs and their spikes, the Maharajas, the princes, the Taj Mahal and Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore – all put in an appearance.  Some modern day Indian nationalists might be critical  of what PGW felt about Mahatama Gandhi’s fasting but one must take into account the time and circumstances while he spoke of Indian Civil Disobedience.  Ashok has admirably captured the essence of PGW’s humour and wit. Undoubtedly, Ashok’s write-up will be immensely liked by PGW’s fans all over India and even elsewhere.

Ashok’s command over the language and the flourish of presentation evoke immediate interest in his writing. A commendable work indeed!

Sanjit Ghatak, India

Imagine my rapture as I turned to page 49 of ‘The Indian Curry dished out by P. G .Wodehouse’ where you kindly mentioned about my humble effort to translate P. G. Wodehouse in Bengali.

At the outset, I must congratulate you on how you have painstakingly collated the India related references scattered in plethora of Wodehouse works, garnishing them suitably with appropriate comments. I hope you will not mind if I mention below some of the other India-related anecdotes appearing in Wodehouse work.

a) It was mentioned somewhere that a Hindu flung himself into the Ganges, got devoured by an alligator and considered the day well spent!

b) Horse racing was a favourite topic for Plum- Hon. Galahad Threepwood was a noted sportsman in his youth. Mention of winning the Great Calcutta Sweep was made on many occasions.

c) In Big Money Major Flood Smith “said something sharply in one of the lesser-known dialects of Hindu-Kush”.

Shalini Kala, India

What a feat – a comprehensive compilation of Plum’s India, accompanied with a wonderful commentary! Loved every bit of it.  I think it will be a treat for any Indian or Indophile who has enjoyed PGW’s writings.

Sriram Paravastu, India

Brilliant writeup and accompanying cartoons by Suvarna Sanyal sir.

Subrata Sarkar, India

Superb. All people wanted to know about “Plum and India” but were too lazy to find out themselves. Hurry Bongsho Jabberjee is obviously a Bengali. I suspect Plum remembered the surname had something to do with incessant talking “chatter” which he recalled as “jabber”. And hence Jabberjee.

Oh! I must mention Suvarna Sanyal and his collage. He brings the characters to life with an additional x-factor.

Suvarna Sanyal, India

Truly PhD level work.

Swarupa Chatterjee, India

This is brilliant. Such an exhaustive account of PGW’s Indian references. And the accompanying illustration is out of the world!

Thakshila Jayasinghe, Sri Lanka

What a read! Enjoyed it very much. I had no idea there were so many references to India in Plum’s books. I suppose you only realise the extent of it when they’re all compiled together like this. Thank you for sharing this with me. It is truly a labour of love as only a real Wodehouse fan could’ve had such dedication.

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John Dawson recently shared with me a few excerpts from his book P. G. Wodehouse’s Early Years: His Life and Work 1881-1908.

The Context

Thomas Anstey Guthrie (1856–1934) of Kensington was a comic novelist and playwright who practiced law for a brief period after leaving school. His first published short story was a farce set in ancient Rome called “Accompanied by a Flute.” It ran in the humor magazine Mirth in 1878; a compositor’s error credited “F. Anstey,” the pen name he would use for the rest of his career.

While at Cambridge, Guthrie had begun an ingenious novel of a father and son switching bodies that he called Vice Versa, or A Lesson to Fathers. When finally published in 1882, it became an overnight sensation. Graphic: “A touch of the romance of Arabian Nights, some of the peculiar whimsicalities of Gilbert, a humour akin to Dickens, and an insight into modern school boy life as deep as that of Hughes or Farrar. A writer with a personality and a bright, clever style.”

Novelist Andrew Lang introduced Guthrie to the editor of Punch, F. C. Burnand. The result was “Voces Populi,” a series of sketches of Brits at work and play that were, according to Brander Matthews of Cosmopolitan: “Photographic in their accuracy. Anstey has caught the cockney in the very act of cockneyism, but wholly without bitterness or rancor. He knows his roughs, his ruffians, his housemaids, his travellers. He sees their weakness, but he is tolerant and does not dislike them in his heart”— another description that could have fit the work of Wodehouse.

In 1958 Plum told his biographer Richard Usborne that he was “soaked in Anstey’s stuff.” He had been for a long time; fifty-three years earlier, as he compiled notes for “Sunshine and Chickens,” (published in 1906 as Love Among the Chickens) he wrote: “Cook as old soldier like a man in Anstey’s Fallen Idol [1886] always grumbling and vaguely indignant with other people when he does anything wrong.” (Phrases, Notes Etc.) The character did not make it into the book.

From Wodehouse’s The White Feather of 1907: “In stories, as Mr. Anstey has pointed out, the hero is never long without his chance of retrieving his reputation,” which is the main theme of the story.

Enter Baboo Jabberjee

Guthrie’s most notable imprint on Wodehouse’s work comes from the pages of Baboo Jabberjee, B.A., published in 1897. Murphy: “At the end of the nineteenth century, hundreds of young Indians came to London to read law, which led F. Anstey to write a series of essays for Punch in the 1890s, supposedly written by one of them. They became the rage and the whole country quoted Mr. ‘Baboo’ Jabberjee, a pompous young Indian law student, who wrote weekly letters to ‘Hon’ble Punch,’ describing his experiences as a visitor to England. His style of speech was orotund eighteenth century Augustan English, and ten words were used when one would do, mixed in with Shakespearean misquotations.” Indeed—in the first installment, Baboo introduces himself to the editors: “Since my sojourn here, I have accomplished the laborious perusal of your transcendent and tip-top periodical, and hoity toity! I am like a duck in thunder with admiring wonderment at the drollishness and jocosity with which your paper is ready to burst.

Plum’s first quotes from the garrulous Indian appear in “The Manoeuvres of Charteris” and in book form in A Prefect’s Uncle: “The Bishop, like Mr. Hurry Bungsho Jabberjee, B.A., became at once the silent tomb.” The silent t. wheeze is one well known to Wodehouse’s readers.

It might have brought a smile of satisfaction to Wodehouse in May 1906 when Ernest Foster, then editor of Chums, the constant companion of his boyhood, commissioned him to write a “not so public-schooly serial with rather a lurid plot.” He turned to Bill Townend for ideas, and under the alias Basil Windham the pair collaborated on a serial novel “full of kidnappings, attempted murders, etc.” called The Luck Stone. It had a long gestation; serialization wasn’t begun until September 1908. Plum referred to the story in a 1911 letter to L. H. Bradshaw as “in the Andrew Home vein.” The formulaic page-turner might best be described to Americans of a certain age as a British version of a Hardy Boys adventure. ‘Basil Windham’ lifted Baboo’s rem acu tetigisti (Lt., you have touched the matter with a needle) which Anstey had cribbed from the Roman playwright Plautus, and mens sana in corpore sano (Lt., a sound mind in a sound body) courtesy of Juvenal; both phrases are well known to Wodehouse’s readers. The authors created a delightful Baboo clone with the Indian student Ram:

Misters and fellow-sufferers permit me to offer a few obiter dicta on unhappy situation in re lamentable foodstuffs supplied to poor schoolboy. For how without food, even if that food be the unappetising and a bit off, shall we support life and not pop off mortal coil, as Hon’ble Shakespeare says? ’Tis better, misters, as Hon’ble Shakespeare also says, to bear with the snip-snaps we know of than fly to others which may prove but a jumping from frying-pan into fire. Half a loaf is better than an entire nullity of the staff of life. (Abridged from original text)

Plum deprived English literature of what would surely have been a comic masterpiece by not letting his readers in on Ram’s recitation of Hamlet’s soliloquy: “Even in its original form this is admitted by most people to be a pretty good piece of writing, and Ram improved on the original. He happened to forget the exact words half-way through, and, scorning to retire gracefully, as a lesser man might have done, he improvised.”

Usborne detected Baboo’s influence in the speech patterns of three of Wodehouse’s most famous characters: “Take your line through Ram, into Psmith the buzzer, Bertie the burbler and Jeeves the orotund, and you may feel inclined to pay a passing tribute to F. Anstey for planting a seed in the rich soil of young Wodehouse’s burgeoning mind. Jabberjee was powerfully seminal to Psmith. Some of his false concords [disagreement of relative and antecedent, misgovernment of pronouns, mistaking the adverb for the adjective, etc.] are repeated verbatim by Bertie Wooster, and some of his inflated phraseology goes into Jeeves’s vocabulary. It was Jabberjee, not Bertie, who first misunderstood Shakespeare’s “an eye like Ma’s to threaten and command.” (“An eye like Mars, from Hamlet)

Chapter 10 of the book, entitled “A Booky Sort of Person,” discusses Wodehouse’s early reading habits and literary influences.

For all Plum enthusiasts, the book is a treasure trove!

(Permission to reproduce these excerpts on this blog site is gratefully appreciated).     

 

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The Indian Curry Dished Out by P. G. Wodehouse

  

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