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How P. G. Wodehouse books could get you through the pandemic

The week of PG Wodehouse’s death anniversary, a writer talks about how his indomitable wit got her through trying times

Wodehouse books at a used bookstore
Wodehouse books at a used bookstore (Gabi S. on Wikimedia Commons)

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A class X student—not a willingly studious one at that—with the impending doom of the Board exams at her door, has little to look forward to. Thankfully, in-between all the mugging up and forgetting, convinced of her dear daughter’s non-existent interest in Trigonometry and all things horrible, this class X student’s mother decided to introduce her to the joys of P. G. Wodehouse.

This was a few decades ago, before the advent of smartphones. To say it was a hook, line and sinker situation would be an understatement. After all, how many authors can come up with an easy wit like Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse (lovingly also known as Plum)did? Sample this gem of a conversation between his charming loser Bertie Wooster and his butler/‘keeper’, the indomitable Jeeves, in The Code of the Woosters:

“There are moments, Jeeves, when one asks oneself, ‘Do trousers matter?’”

“The mood will pass, sir.”

Ever since, all stressful, chaotic and horrid googlies that life threw at me, have been dealt with Plum’s expert guidance and witticisms. The forever-ongoing pandemic is also one such time. 

With the world crashing under the burden of the coronavirus, it was natural for me to seek refuge in Bertie, Jeeves, Lord Emsworth, Empress of Blandings, and even Aunt Dahlia, of whom Bertie says in Right Ho, Jeeves:

“It isn’t often that Aunt Dahlia lets her angry passions rise, but when she does, strong men climb trees and pull them up after them.”

A reluctant banker, Wodehouse published his first novel, The Pothunters, in 1902. Between 1908 and 1915, emerged his famous characters Psmith, the Blandings Castle gang, Wooster and Jeeves. It has been more than a century since. But don’t let the time and age fool you into thinking that Plum should be relegated to the back of beyond. The ready wit that he has is incomparable. Little wonder that when Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie adapted his Jeeves and Wooster for the small screen in 1990, it was a resounding hit and continues to enthrall.

But of course, for me, nothing beats the written word. Plum could give birth to words and phrases that would immediately bring a faint look of recognition to the reader nonetheless. Sample this from The Code of the Woosters:

“I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.”

One can almost picturise what ‘gruntled’ would look like. And that is the beauty of Wodehouse. Even the most mundane task, such as having breakfast, can become the most extraordinary when it comes from Wodehouse’s pen. No one explains it better than Bertie in Jeeves and the Unbidden Guest:

“There was something sort of bleak about her tone, rather as if she had swallowed an east wind. This I took to be due to the fact that she probably hadn’t breakfasted. It’s only after a bit of breakfast that I’m able to regard the world with that sunny cheeriness which makes a fellow the universal favourite. I’m never much of a lad till I’ve engulfed an egg or two and a beaker of coffee.”

When the pandemic struck, one of the very first routines I laid off was breakfast. No ‘Eggs and B’ for me. I was living in an abyss of the wonderfully named and equally sinister world of work-from-home, where you attended official meetings in your pyjamas in the summers and worked from under a blanket bunker in the winters. Little wonder that this lethargy soon metamorphosed into depression.

At such a time when I turned to Wodehouse, I realised the innate importance of the first meal of the morning. It simply puts you in charge of the rest of the day, or at least until lunchtime.

Making people happy was Wodehouse’s overriding ambition. With every sparkling joke, every well-meaning character, every farcical turn of events, every Utopian description, or a terrifying summer village fete, Plum can whisk away our worries. When I was struck with Covid-19, a reading of life at Blandings was much-needed relief. Along with generous doses of kadha, steam, gargling and Dolo-650, it made life almost bearable.

Plum could easily have written more serious stuff. In fact, he started his writing career with articles about school sports. Thankfully for his fans, he decided that he would do well to stick to spreading, in his own words, “sweetness and light”.

The sunlit idyllic world that Wodehouse so lovingly gave us can never be stale. Even at our worst moments—in my case the last two years of the pandemic, in the second half of which I rediscovered Blandings Castle, Bertie and Jeeves—Wodehouse has our backs. His characters have helped me tide over many misfortunes. Granted, not always with a happy swing, but definitely with a hop.

Medha Dutta Yadav is a Delhi-based journalist

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