The Curious Case Of The Passe

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When did we stop reading Agatha Christie and PG Wodehouse?

ARUL MANI

Illustration: Samia Singh

I DON’T know if many will mourn the disappearance of Agatha Christie and PG Wodehouse from the list of the de rigueur. Christie did manage a long reign, extending her sway while it lasted to every poky little circulating library and two-cupboard-bookshop across the country. The longevity of her popularity has less to do with easy answers such as a general Anglophilia, or the detective as a God-surrogate, or even the quaintly British universe she relentlessly reproduced under names such as St Mary Mead.

The reader must try and recapture that little frisson of excitement she felt when she received, for the first time, the intimation that there was a world where the small rules mattered, the fake reassurance that all you needed to gain entry into the specific orderly little world that could shut you out was an intimate knowledge of these rules. What Christie did in India was perhaps to provide every one of her readers with a sense of aspirated belonging, if not aspiration. I can only say good riddance to the great Dame — she knew just one trick and it’s a wonder that it took people so long to tumble to the fact that her promise was never anything more than one of genteel and complacent dreariness.

It is a bit of a wrench to see that Wodehouse too seems to have gone off the list. Yet, as one traumatised by hundreds of people who insisted on enunciating the name like it was an unholy union between the dye that ancient Britons used and one half of a fashionable Delhi locality, I think it’s a bit of alright, actually. It was always a little more than irksome to rub shoulders with those who saw his prose as a passport to somewhere.

The fact that so many of his characters were gasbags who breezed their way from failure to bigger failure — each new locus never quite the stepping-stone so much as the divingboard or the gangplank — seems to present us with a bit of a conundrum. How is it that he stayed in circulation in India for so long even as his characters refused, quite amiably, to fit into any model of masculine achievement? Perhaps because his stories skip irreverently to this day while Christie produces no more than a dowdy moral shuffle. Perhaps because Wodehouse marries a world bristling with rules and no-nos to an anarchic, high-kicking energy. Perhaps because we recognise that energising tension as something similar to the effect of the constant collision between repression and a sense of the ridiculous in our own lives.

If there is one thing that is cause for some celebration it is Chetan Bhagat having topped the readership surveys. While it is possible to cavil at his lack of sophistication, we must not lose sight of the fact that he seems to have knocked off the likes of Shiv Khera and Paulo Coelho, as well as a former President. Fiction tops selfhelp and other such pap simply because it makes room for ambivalence and doubt. If Indians are really reading Chetan Bhagat as much as they claim to, this could well mean that his fiction offers them the chance to contrast the greys of their own experience with the neat verities of the narratives of success, confidence and positive-thinking that the others serve up untiringly. The fact that sundry wings of fire, promises of victory, and Coelho’s fake-orgasm prose have been outstripped by these novels suggests, most certainly, that the ordinary reader has begun to discriminate. This outbreak of maturity is not to be sneezed at. Those who eventually tire of Bhagat will stay and look for narratives that allow them to ask more searching questions of the wisdom that they receive. If that happens, the day may yet be won for reading.

Mani is a columnist and teaches in a Bengaluru college

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