Saturday, April 16, 2005

S J Perelman, and Motilal Nehru’s laundry

Working my way slowly back into the reading habit like a man recovering from paralysis and re-learning how to walk, I turned to some of S J Perelman’s short stories. Perelman was a great American humorist, an absolute master of the non-sequitur, who worked as a screenplay writer in Hollywood in the 1930s and helped in the development of the Marx Brothers brand of humour, among other things. He was also among the best of a long line of writers with the ability to take the most everyday occurences - a stray remark in a newspaper clipping, for instance - and spin comic masterworks around them. A good example is a Perelman story I read recently with the enticing title "No Starch in the Dhoti, S’Il Vous Plait", which is built entirely around an actual newspaper report about Jawaharlal Nehru. The original report included the following passage:

"Nehru is accused of having a congenital distaste for is said that in the luxurious and gracious house of his father, the late Pandit Motilal Nehru - who sent his laundry to Paris - the young Jawaharlal’s British nurse used to make caustic remarks to the impressionable boy about the table manners of his father’s American guests."

What Perelman does is to home in on that one phrase "who sent his laundry to Paris" and write:

"I blenched at the complications this overseas despatch must have entailed. Conducted long before there was any air service between India and Europe, it would have involved posting the stuff by sea - a minimum of three weeks in each direction, in addition to the time it took for processing. Each trip would have created problems of customs examination, valuation, duty (unless Nehru senior got friends to take it through for him, which is improbable; most people detest transporting laundry across the world, even their own). The old gentleman had evidently had a limitless wardrobe, to be able to dispense with it for three months at a time."

The rest of the story is epistolary, as Perelman conjectures the exchange of letters that must have taken place between Motilal Nehru and the Paris-based laundryman. The letters are extremely improbable, but they are hilarious.

(P.S. "No Starch in the Dhoti, S’Il Vous Plait" is just one of the many very entertaining titles for Perelman’s stories; others include "Methinks He Doth Protein Too Much", "And Thou Beside Me, Yacketing in the Wilderness" and "I’ll Always Call You Schnorrer, My African Explorer".)

Woody Allen once said something to the effect that reading Perelman was fatal to a young writer because his style seeps into you... "he’s got such a pronounced, overwhelming comic style that it’s hard not to be influenced by him." I tend to relate this observation to the effect reading P G Wodehouse in school/college has on many young aspiring writers in India. It’s a shame that Perelman isn’t as well known or as widely read here. That probably has something to do with the fact that his stories are full of colloqualisms, with many references to things we aren’t familiar with - staples of American popular culture in the 1930s and 1940s (for every one time I chuckle out loud while reading him, there’s another time I frown, uncertain exactly what he’s talking about even while acknowledging that whatever it is, it’s probably very funny). Whatever the case, he isn’t easy to read and you have to be prepared for the occasional story that’s just too abstruse to get through. It’s a bit like that blurb about Saki, which goes "his writing is so intense, it induces a kind of literary dyspepsia".

Last month incidentally was Perelman’s 100th birth anniversary. Here’s a profile by Time magazine’s Richard Corliss.

Groucho Marx to S J Perelman: “From the moment I picked up your book until I put it down, I was convulsed with laughter. Some day I intend reading it.”


  1. Have been told by many Americans that the average educated English-speaking urban Indian speaks English straight out of Wodehouse. Expressions like "bottom of the barrel", and words like "queue" have drawn laughs from them, so the literary effect goes both ways.

  2. "The letters are extremely improbable, but they are hilarious." You mean they are hilarious because of their improbability, don't you?

    Haven't read Perelman - thank you for the tip.

  3. Is this a regional thing Gamemaster? I've heard American use queue and queueing up in SoCal, although used mostly for the sequence of jobs for a copying machine, or some such thing.

    When you want to buy tickets though, you stand in line.

    By the way, is there any truth to this laundry story? What about the other story about Nehru changing 20 suits a day (or an equally improbable number) every time he travelled abroad?

  4. Jai, that last quote from Groucho was excellent. Thanks for gathering such gems for us.

    Thalassa, didn't we had that laundry story somewhere in our history books? I think I read it in primary school. Though I won't be surprised, if it turns out to be an urban legend. Never heard of that 20 suits story though. Time to polish some history.

  5. The "who sent his laundry to Paris" phrase also gives Perelman a chance for a long introductory essay on the "throwaway line," of which he regards this as a perfect example, beating out the previous champion, a wisecrack he attributes to Groucho Marx. This kind of "misdirection intro"--we're expecting a Groucho reminiscence but what's actually in store is a fanciful exchange of letters between Motilal Nehru and a Paris dry cleaner--was one of Perelman's frequent structural devices.

  6. It depends where in the United States the line is as to whether you are in or on.