July 25, 2005

Wodehouse Babu

Baboo Jabberjee, BA, was a character created by the English humorist F. Anstey for Punch, an Indian law-student in England who has learnt his English from books and speaks in absurdly inflated phrases. (He describes himself as 'saturated to the skin of his teeth in best English masterpieces of immaculate and moderately good prose extracts'). Anstey's Punch sketches were compiled into a book in 1897 and the character also featured in a sequel, A Bayard from Bengal, published in 1902. I've read both the Jabberjee books: they're politically incorrect, of course, but also quite funny, with devastating parodies of Babu English. Apparently, they had a great influence on P. G. Wodehouse's style: I've just discovered this extract from Richard Usborne's Plum Sauce at the Random House site, which shows how Jabberjee's words are sometimes repeated verbatim by Bertie Wooster, 'if perhaps with faint quotation marks in his voice'.
Jabberjee writes: 'As poet Burns remarks with great truthfulness, "Rank is but a penny stamp, and a Man is a man and all that."' This is a pleasant skid on the banana skin of education. Bertie and Jeeves, you remember, get tangled up in this same quotation at a moment of great crisis.

Rem acu tetigisti, non possumus, surgit amari aliquid, ultra vires, mens sana in corpore sano, amende honorable - these are gobbets of education that Jabberjee uses and Jeeves takes over. And (this is sad) we find that it was Jabberjee, and not Bertie, who first made that excellent Shakespeare emendation, only conceivable through the ears, only translatable through the eyes. Jabberjee writes: 'Jessamina inherits, in Hamlet's immortal phraseology, "an eye like Ma's to threaten and command".'
Journalists like David Gardner have claimed to find echoes of P. G. Wodehouse in Indian English, but it seems more likely that the reverse is true: Wodehouse's style owes a debt to Babu bombast.

3 comments:

km said...

Terrific post, Devraj.

If you want to read a humorist who writes without the "faint quotation marks in his voice", read Kyril Bonfiglioli, who quotes entire Jeeves/Wooster passages in his devastatingly funny "Mortdecai" series of books. If ever there was a successor to the great Plum, it was the short-lived Mr. Bonfiglioli.

Cheers,

krishna

Gati said...

Wow, whatasite....I shd have discovered it long ago.

Gati said...

Hi,
Do you know anything in detail about the origin of the word "Gandu" - looks like these days we do not mean "catamite" when we say gandu.