Wodehouse and I
The second most common question a budding novelist gets asked is: ‘What are your influences?’ The first one being, of course: ‘Who’s your publisher? You don’t have one? What was that? Yet? Oh, yes, I see what you mean – Yet. Hm, yes.’ But coming back to this influences business, I’ve never somehow understood this obsession with a writer’s influences. I mean, what does it matter? Does it improve your enjoyment of his work? Does it get you a discount on Amazon? Influenza, yes – you don’t want to catch it if you meet him at a literary do. But influences, really! Leave the poor fellow to his influences and buy his damn books.
What is worse, they’ll impute influences without giving the poor chap a chance to reply. Oh you know, your book reminds me of XXXX. XXXX being some Jim, Harry or Bob you’ve never heard of, let alone read. I don’t know why they do it. Does it make them seem cleverer to themselves? Does it help them neatly docket the author in a pigeonhole and put a label to his face? Some people seem unable to enjoy anything without tagging a neat label to it. The sort who can’t just enjoy Rock. No, it has to be Heavy Metal. And not just any ol’ Heavy Metal. It has to be Satanistic Electro – Nu Metal with Atavistic Influences.
Anyhow, if you are one of these incorrigible slotters, let me tell you my influences are Wodehouse, Wodehouse, Wodehouse – and Wodehouse. And my novels belong in a slot called ‘Wodehousean Humor’. Impute any other influences, or put me in any other slot, and you’ll get a sharp kick on your rear. If you are smaller than me that is, and look the sort of wimpy shrimp who won’t hit back. If you’re bigger than me, I’ll imagine I’m kicking you on the rear, which can hurt more.
It stands to reason: in the past twenty years, the only fiction I’ve read is Wodehouse. Non Fiction, yes – I read lot of histories and biographies – I’m a history freak – and technical books, New Age and religious books. But my only fictional relaxation is reading and re-reading the works of the great man, somewhat akin to turning a few pages of the Bible every night before going off to sleep.
Yes, I did read widely and voraciously until my twenty-first year, as I describe elsewhere. But once I got a job, I dragged myself home in the wee hours, past midnight, and all I could stand was a few pages of the doings of Bertie Wooster and Lord Emsworth to help me get to sleep. And it became a habit. After several years of this, I found it impossible to read any other fiction. When I went into bookshops and scanned the latest titles, it all seemed so colorless and insipid compared to the works of the great master that I felt no inclination to waste precious leisure hours reading that dross – or, for that matter, to loosen the necessary shekels buying it.
So, dear slotter, I can’t possibly have any other influences than PGW. If you see traces of XXXX in my work – or Jim or Bob or Harry – please kick yourself on the rear, or I’ll do it for you.
OK, I’ll be honest. I do have a couple of other small influences. Listening to Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy on the BBC as a kid opened my eyes to the humorous possibilities of science and technology. Kafka is probably responsible for my love of the bizarre. And the Charles Schulz brand of humor influences me a bit too, almost certainly in my cartooning work, but also I think to some extent in the dialog in my novels, a bit. But THAT’S IT!
If my work resembles that of any other author, possibly he has similar influences. This is quite possible, especially where other Indian authors are concerned. Most of the big daddies of Indian Writing in English claim P.G. Wodehouse amongst their influences – including the biggest of the big daddies, one S. Rushdie. There is something about Wodehouseian humor that particularly appeals to the Indian psyche.
Pelham Grenville crept unexpectedly into my life, in my fourteenth year, in a cramped and dusty school library. ‘Do Butlers BurgleBanks?’ it was called, and it entranced me - and it doesn’t even count amongst his best works. It opened my eyes to possibilities of humor as an art form – not just for ‘being funny’. I thrashed around for more works of that awkwardly named author. But in a one-tonga townlike Jodhpur inthe seventies – fat chance. No Amazon to order it on, in those days – no internet, not computers even. And then I found a treasure trove right under my nose, so to speak. At the end of the lane from my house lived a dedicated Wodehouse fan. He had collected each and every book that the master had ever written – all ninety five (not counting the posthumous Midnight at Blandings that came out several years later). Luckily, my dad knew this chap a bit, and I got permission to burrow into his library, which I did for several subsequent months.
And then I went on to Kafka and Dostoevsky and Hemingway – but I kept in touch with the old master. I got addicted to BBC, and discovered other practitioners of the art of humor – Douglas Adams, Spike Milligan, Frank Muir, Denis Norden…
Fast-forward several years. I got a job. Wodehouse sidled back into my life and became my regular bedside companion and sleeping pill, as I staggered home in the early hours of the day, my brain creaking with algorithms and software architecture.
Fast-forward several more years. I had my Annus Horribilis, like QE II. The worst year of my life. My mom set fire to herself, driven out of her mind with pain from a medical condition, my dad died of cancer and grief, my wife decided enough was more than sufficient and walked out on me – and a stupid female broke my heart. I was all set to string myself up with a couple of yard of nylon rope. I even bought the rope. But old Plum saved my life. It’s difficult to string yourself up when you’re laughing. There is, after all, something faintly ridiculous about a broken heart, and nylon rope. I plunged anew into deep, comforting waters of Wodehouse’s world, and arose several months later, refreshed. I needed a new direction. Could it be anything other than to follow my mentor?
I wanted to write, and I wanted to create a warm and friendly world of my own, where possibly other luckless fellows might wander in and realize the utter ridiculousness of a broken heart and throw away their yards of nylon rope. A world where you’re not allowed to be sad or malevolent, and the sun is always supposed to shine – but other than that there are no rules. In fact, that is the fourth rule – there are to be no other rules.
And I wrote some stuff. And Wodehouse came to me in a dream and scanned my stuff while puffing on his pipe, and nodded his approval. Keep at it, he said, you’ll get there eventually. The effect of over doing on rich foods the previous night, the cynic would say, but that dream meant a lot to me.
With the confidence of his stamp, I set about building my own world – line by line, book by book, character by character. It still has a Work In Progress sign outside, but it’s already a nice-enough world, this world I share with Perl and Hari.