"It was that little hell-hound; Tonga, who shot one of his cursed darts into him. I had no part in it, sir. I was as grieved as if it had been my blood-relation. I welted the little devil with the slack end of the rope for it, but it was done, and I could not undo it again."Some would say that such a characterization should not be used to read too far into the author's mind and if anything, should be written off as a peccadillo subsumed under the larger umbrella of artistic freedom. Nonetheless, it is surprising how deeply progressive writers such as Doyle (someone who was singularly responsible for popularizing the methods of science and deductive reasoning) had a part of their minds that still lived in the past. And this was a time when the moral Zeitgeist was undergoing rapid progressive transformation, thanks to philosophers and visionaries in the West. This was a time when slavery had long ended in America, a time when feminism was already a significant social force in Europe, a time when philosophers like T. H. Huxley and John Stuart Mill had broke open conservative traditions through critical reasoning. Three years after the publication of The Sign of Four, Swami Vivekananda's speech at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago would be greeted by a thunderous applause by a prominently white audience.
But my thoughts in this vein were rekindled today, not by Conan Doyle's works, (which in spite of being masterful are filled with such racial innuendos) but by one of the most innocuous of authors in the English literature- the master comedian P. G. Wodehouse. While most of us fancy Wodehouse as light reading, I read Wodehouse carefully for I find his wit unparalleled and worthy of emulation. At the same time, his writing is pregnant with incredible perception and satirical irreverence of English orthodoxy. Dawkins' tells us how Wodehouse's writings were filled with extremely smart and appropriate biblical allusions (See The God Delusion):
P G Wodehouse is, for my money, the greatest writer of light comedy in the language, and I bet fully half my list of biblical phrases will be found as allusions within his pages. (A Google search will not find all of them, however. It will miss the derivation of the short story title, 'The Aunt and the Sluggard' from Proverbs 6: 6.) The Wodehouse canon is rich in other biblical phrases, not in my list above and not incorporated into the language as idioms or proverbs. Listen to Bertie Wooster's evocation of what it is like to wake up with a bad hangover:I had been dreaming that some bounder was driving spikes through my head — not just ordinary spikes, as used by Jael the wife of Heber, but red-hot ones.
Coming back to what whetted my appetite to write a post was a growing consternation at regular negative allusions to the 'tropics' and the 'natives of the subcontinent' in Wodehouse's classic bestseller, Life at Blandings. In an otherwise hilarious racket of a series, these instances seemed like bad notes spoiling a well-woven melody. The first instance that I quote is from Summer Lightning(1929), when Millicent discusses Schopenhauer with Sue Brown, who is posing as Miss Schoonmaker in Blandings Castle.
Schopenhauer says suicide's absolutely O. K. He says Hindoos do it instead of going to church. They bung themselves into the Ganges and get eaten by crocodiles and call it a well-spent day.
For all his mystical infatuations with the wisdom of the east, I am pretty certain that Arthur Schopenhauer would not have made a statement that even suggested a practice similar to that described above. But while The Sign of Four was published in 1890, Summer Lightning was published much later in 1929, sixteen years after Rabindranath Tagore had won the Nobel Prize in Literature and ten years after Srinivasa Ramanujan had left Wodehouse's country after one of the most successful collaborations in the history of mathematics with England's most famous mathematician then. In less than a year's time, India would have its first Nobel laureate in Physics - C. V. Raman. Gandhi was already world-famous and highly respected in England. Yet, Wodehouse's representation of India is reminiscent of the arrogant Maculay and James Mill (who is said to have written the first 'authoritative' history of India) as opposed to the likes of his own contemporary writers like E. M. Forster. As an other example, consider the following statement of Colonel Horace in Something Fresh(1915) when he speculates what must be wrong with Rupert Baxter's disposition:
It's a well known form of insanity. Paranoia- isn't that what they call it? Rush of blood to the head, followed by a general running amuck. I've heard fellows who have been in India talk of it. Natives get it. Don't know what they're doing, and charge through the streets taking cracks at people with dashed whacking great knives.I was surprised to find not two but five or six instances throughout the Life of Blandings where the tropics were used with great dexterity and with to make fantastic allusions to degrees of madness and insanity that can manifest themselves in humans. I was far from outraged when I read these things :-). However, they invariably led me to reflect upon the biases that writers carry in spite of not wanting to be labeled as such. My only take-home from this is that in the process of being funny and witty, one just ends up being squarely obnoxious and unjust to a largely heterodoxical culture, worthy of kinder words. Such misrepresentation is more of an indicative verdict on the intellectual limitations of the author as compared to being defamatory on the an entire culture/community. I still stand by my love for Wodehouse and Conan Doyle - they are to me, the greatest comedy and mystery writers respectively and absolute masters of the English language. No reader can miss the feeling of a rejuvenated ability to write and speak after reading a single chapter of any book by either of them. But a writer must exercise caution; it is easy to get carried away forgetting that there is a thin red line separating satire and stupidity.