Where is the Britain of Wodehouse and Waugh?

They never knew the effect their writing had on we Indians, the third worlders.

I went to university in a dusty tin shed in New Delhi. It was an off-campus Delhi University college meant for academic failures. The roof leaked shafts of searing hot sun in summers, showers in monsoons and the occasional wispy cotton-candy like fog drifted in during winters. Stray dogs would loiter outside the classroom and the principal had spent the money meant for the library on his backyard extension.

My fondest memories of that tin shed are of reading up on the adventures of the Famous Five in coves off the Cornish coast, Miss Marple’s acute understanding of the human nature in the village of St Mary Mead and Bertie Wooster’s dandyish escapades in the metropolis.

I wasn’t the exception. P G Wodehouse, often overlooked in Britain, sells like hot cakes in India. Societies dedicated to his work litter Indian cities and novellas are re-enacted in incongruous accents. Small railway stations in impoverished provinces of India sell Agatha Christie and Evelyn Waugh. Saki is quoted with relish over the afternoon chai. Blyton’s Malory Towers is read by girls in pigtails, off to school on rickshaws. Tamil and Kashmiri boys read Richmal Crompton and are on first terms with William, Ginger and Henry.

Connaught Place in New Delhi is the very centre of the decaying capital of an emerging economy. It is white-washed and modeled on the Royal Crescent in Bath. Little gypsy girls from Rajasthan, hair blonde from mineral deficiencies and stomachs bloated from kwashiorkor, wriggle their bodies through iron hoops for a rupee, a banana, or a piece of jaggery. This is the India I grew up in. Driving through the wide, sun-dappled avenues of Lutyens' Delhi, stopping for a spot of jamun from the roadwallah, a spot of roasted maize, deftly stepping over a bundle of rags with eyes gouged out, blinded and mutilated by parents to ensure begging revenues for the coming pensionless years.

Growing up in India, I, like other good middle class boys with oiled side-parted hair, servants and creases down the front of the trousers, kept ugliness at bay. The Indian middle class, like their counterparts elsewhere, excel at putting the blinkers on. And in a land filled with starving little Rajasthani gypsy girls, one could do with a set of top-notch pukka A1 grade blinkers. Blyton was at hand at the Delhi traffic-lights to keep away disturbing images of deformed beggars and widowed old hags.

What would Bertie Wooster do?  

Jeeves instructed me in the art of the stiff upper as the Yamuna stank in the monsoons. 

"Listen, Corky, old top! If you think I am going to face that uncle of yours without Jeeves's support, you're mistaken. I'd sooner go into a den of wild beasts and bite a lion on the back of the neck."

"Oh, all right," said Corky. Not cordially, but he said it; so I rang for Jeeves, and explained the situation.

"Very good, sir," said Jeeves.

That's the sort of chap he is. You can't rattle him.

In India, fine twentieth century British literature makes a very compelling means of escape from the daily drudgery. The British might have been the sunburned sahibs that cracked the whip over the sub-continent, but they wrote bloody well.

Everything was AOK. How could it not be? I thought that in a world where England existed all was tiptop. Ticketyboo! A  phantasmogoric England: of Richmal Crompton, of oak trees, Cottingley Fairies, mist and red bricks, of freshly baked bread, of ruddy cheeks, tweeds, pheasants, pipe tobacco, water-wheels, chukkas and jodhpurs, What ho! and I say!

I had decided I was going there to study. Post-haste!

I had no idea what it meant to be called to the Bar, but it sounded very good. Bahut accha! 

So I packed my bags. I took to Britain like I had taken to shaving; at the first sight of pubescent hair, I had shaved my upper lip; then the elbows, knees, the knuckles and lastly my toes. Britain, Albion, that Fair Sceptred Isle was dealt with the same enthusiastic fury as shaving was. I memorised county names and read up on her prime ministers. Radio 4 was an All-British institution, someone told me. I shook off my sing-song voice, copied the RP assiduously, took care of my Vs and Ws, unlearnt the Indian vocabulary. Bamboozle. Bombastic. Funtoosh! I moulded myself on a dandy, molted in my room listening to the radio all monsoon; Stephen Fry, Jeremy Paxman, read Flashman, watched Blackadder and came summer emerged as a cheap imitation of a substandard Englishman.

I was giddy on the flight to Britain. I had never been abroad. The plane flew over the mountains of Afghanistan, wrinkled and bare. Within the folds of those wrinkles, I wondered if strange bearded men were fighting the Green Jackets, the Royal Marines, and the Parachute Regiment... from England!

Those nine or so hours on the flight to London from New Delhi were spent masticating a Jeeves and Wooster Omnibus, spitting out the words in an appalling imitation of an Oxford drawl and dreaming of a country with no dust - just good honest moist sod.

The immigration lady at Heathrow looked at my passport and then at me. The soles of my feet kept sliding on a thin film of sweat as my palms wet the cold granite of the counter. Suddenly she jerked her head at me and asked me for a tuberculosis report. I didn't have one.

Outside, clutching my four pieces of luggage in the rain, Britain seemed harsh and alien.

And so began this search. This search for Britain of my books. Did it exist anymore? Did it ever exist? Was it all a con?

Five years of Private Eye, Jeremy Clarkson, Newsnight and Peter Hitchens have lanced the Waugh, the Greene, the Blyton out of me. It was all a con.

I wonder if the British ever realise what effect their writing has had on us, the third worlders. It inspired love. Love for a country that most of us had never visited, love for people that hold us in contempt, for an establishment that had raped us, then pontificated and left suddenly with scarcely a toodle pip. An incurable stench of disappointment hangs in the air.

How could something so beautiful be so untrue?

Ritwik Deo is currently working on his first novel, about an Indian butler in Britain.

P G Wodehouse in 1928. Photograph: Getty Images

Ritwik Deo is currently working on his first novel, about an Indian butler in Britain.

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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge