Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Wodehouse in Ootacamund

I will always associate the novels of P.G. Wodehouse with the plight of Tibetans in exile. Let me explain.

I have never enjoyed reading merely for the sake of diversion or amusement. This is not a boast; indeed, having never developed an interest in popular fiction—in mysteries, science fiction, detective novels, westerns, adventure or fantasy, not even in the sumptuous, much-celebrated horrors of Michael Creighton and Stephen King—I’ve often felt I’ve missed out on things. For I’ve seen the pleasure my family and friends derive from it.

I believe my lack of interest in popular fiction has much to do with the fact that I came to reading quite late. Not that I couldn’t read or didn’t read when I was younger: like Bartleby, I simply preferred not to. For a host of then largely unexamined reasons, I resisted the act and pastime with an intensity all the more pronounced for the fact that my house, a large old farmhouse on the Susquehanna River, was filled with books (a friend of mine once insisted that we had a larger, more varied collection than the local public library). What’s more, nearly everyone in my family was an avid reader. At any moment, and for no apparent reason, one of my brothers or sisters would take up a book and read! It baffled me why anyone would choose to spend one’s afternoon nose buried in a book, when one could be watching television, riding one’s bike or enjoying oneself with friends. 

Still I was not unaware of the books around me. For years, as I’d watched television in our house, I’d puzzled vaguely over the multicolored spines on the bookshelves all around me, particularly, I recall, over the title of one book that never moved from its place on the shelf directly above the set, a novel called I, Jan Cremer, often playing with the name in my mind without ever actually bothering to see what the book was about. For better or worse, I never went through a Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter-like phase. What I remember is how painful, how fruitless, the act of reading had seemed to me. One particular memory is etched in my brain. I recall spending a long, dreary vacation with my father and sisters on one of the Ocracoke Islands, and slowly forcing my way through Steinbeck’s novella, Of Mice and Men, as I’d been required to do, fearing each day, dreading with each page, that the story would never end!   

It wasn’t until my junior year of high school, when I was assigned to a Mr. Kirschner’s class, that something changed in me, that my all but reflexive resistance to reading began to give way. I remember we studied some interesting poetry and short stories, as well as a fairly bleak novella called The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. If I hadn’t loved it, I also hadn’t hated it. Certain scenes in the story remain with me to this day. Yet what made the greatest impression on me that year was my teacher’s habit (in retrospect an affectation) of holding his right hand over his heart when he read aloud to us in class. When one of my classmates asked him about it one day, he replied simply by opening up his tweed jacket and withdrawing from the pocket inside it an old paperback copy of Moby Dick, a book he claimed to have cherished all his life and that he’d read so many times he’d had to bind it together with rubber bands! Eccentric, yes. Mad, surely. Yet there seemed more to it than that. How could a person—and a seemingly intelligent one at that—be so moved by a book? It perplexed me; it intrigued me; I simply couldn’t understand.

The turning point for me came my senior year, when my teacher, Mr. Kerr (to me the spitting image of Ichabod Crane), asked us to read Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. It is no exaggeration to say (as I feel particularly qualified to do, now that I’ve taught the novella to high school seniors for many years) that I’d understood none of it—not a character, a theme, a trope, not a single tangled phrase. What I’d grasped, however, what I’d somehow intuited, was that I was in the presence of something great, something prodigious, momentous, profound—a fact made all the more plain to me, all the more bewitching, by its very elusiveness, by its stubborn impenetrability to me. Suddenly there was a reason to try to find my way in.

And try I did. Once I reached college I tried hard—in course after course, novel after novel, poem after poem after play. I knew that the way I read was different from that of my classmates and professors, surely most of whom had been reading all their lives. Often in the course of my studies I gasped, I floundered. I was staggered by the impossibly long reading assignments, discouraged by the cryptic, often allusive, density of the texts (Clarissa, Tristram Shandy, and Vanity Fair), and often passed my time in the library, there on Washington Square Park, staring vacantly out the large picture window by which I liked to sit. Yet it was there, in time, that my love of reading—of reading literature—took root.

Flash forward eight years to 1988. Inspired by my girlfriend Annie’s grant-writing work for The Office of Tibet, what for all intents and purposes was the exiled Dalai Lama’s embassy in New York, and by our deep association with the Tibetan community there, we made plans one summer to travel to southern India, to Bombay then south to Bangalore and Mysore, and to the Tibetan refugee camp of Bylakuppe, before traveling on to the famous old British hill station of Ootacamund. I remember the bus ride to Ooty best, the almost painful shifting of gears as the ramshackle bus climbed its way up through dazzlingly green tea fields into the Nilgiri Hills, a scene most reminiscent to me (in the rolling softness of the terrain) of the Lake District in England through which the poet Wordsworth once strolled. 

The connection was not so far-fetched. Beginning in 1789, when the region came under the control of the British East India Company, the Nilgiri Hills were cleared and cultivated along distinctly British lines, ultimately serving as an important hill station during the British Raj, when the wealthier, more prominent English fled the burning plains of the Indian summer for the cool respite of these hills. The game of snooker is believed to have originated there.

Ooty, by the time we arrived, more than forty years after the British were driven out, was much the worse for wear. The buildings were ugly or unremarkable. What’s more, it rained incessantly during our nearly three weeks there, so that the streets were thick with garbage and mud. While still lushly green, while still a popular travel destination for Indians and non-Indians alike, the little town had clearly lost its imperial sheen. The notable exception to this were the botanical gardens, laid out by the British in 1847, where, for want of much else to do, we wandered almost daily in the rain.

When not exploring the hillsides, we spent much of our time holed up in our spartan hotel room or sitting convivially in the company of the dozen or so Tibetans we’d met there through a friend of ours in New York, a man named Tinley Nyandak, whose nephew, Tenzing Tsethar, we’d agreed to sponsor so that he could attend a small private school in a town nearby. We’d made the trip partly to meet him. Siting with these Tibetans, day after day, hearty, mountain-eyed refugees from the brutal Chinese takeover of Tibet, it was one of the first occasions in which I’d truly sensed the depth and elasticity of Time. We’d sat for hours on end in a dark and smoky room together, smiling gently at each other, though rarely speaking, sometimes carving bits of meat from a cold lamb shank that was passed around the room, and sipping cup after cup of yak butter tea. In the very air one could sense their resilience, their patient and indomitable strength.   

So how, given the way I opened this post, did I end up reading something as light, as effervescent, as nakedly entertaining as the novels of PG. Wodehouse? Well—as the result of a minor crisis that happened to me just a couple of days after our arrival in Ooty, one that, given the nature of our visit there, barely deserves repeating. Simply put: I ran out of things to read. By accident I had left two of the books I’d packed for the trip in the house in which we’d stayed in Bylakuppe. With all that rain and nothing to read I thought I’d go mad. Fortunately we’d found a small travelers’ bookstore in town, just a short walk from our hotel. While the selection was limited, mostly romance novels, travel guides, and lurid looking mysteries, there on the bottom shelf, near the end of the alphabetical order, I’d discovered what appeared to be nearly a complete set of the funny, what ho! Jeeves novels of P.G. Wodehouse in their familiar Penguin editions. Of course I’d bought them all, every last one of them, crawling into my sleeping bag with the lot of them the moment we got back to our hotel. I’d scarcely even noticed the rain. Starting with My Man Jeeves, The Inimitable Jeeves, and Carry On, Jeeves, I’d read my way (with some lapses, and by the time we reached the  sunny beaches of Kerala) as far The World of Jeeves. Much obliged, Jeeves. It was exactly the diversion I’d needed!

Peter Adam Nash

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