All About Who?, or, S. Rushdie’s Secret Guru
All About H. Hatterr - G.V. Desani
Member Name: beoram
All About H. Hatterr - G.V. Desani
Date: 22/11/01, updated on 24/11/01 (3796 review reads)
Advantages: a revolutionary novel-on the same shelf with Sterne's 'Tristram Shandy', Joyce's 'Ulysses' and Rushdie's 'Midnight's Childen'!, very amusing
Disadvantages: may be difficult in parts, currently [22.11.01] out-of-print
‘Indian middle-man (to author): Sir, if you do not identify your composition a novel, how then do we itemise it? Sir, the rank and file is entitled to know.
Author (to Indian middle-man): Sir, I identify it a gesture. Sir, the rank and file is entitled to know.
Indian middle-man (to author): Sir, there is no immediate demand for gestures. There is immediate demand for novels. Sir, we are literary agents, not free agents.
Author (to Indian middle-man): Sir, I identify it a novel. Sir, itemise it accordingly.’
-Epigraph to 'All About H. Hatterr'
'ALL ABOUT H. HATTERR', by the Indian author G.V. Desani is a novel whose popularity is a bit like the rain in some parts of India—either there’s not a drop to be seen or there’s a monsoon. When the book first appeared in 1948, it was greeted with a flood of critical acclaim and rare enthusiasm by many distinguished literary critics, including the poet T.S. Eliot. A few years later it sank into obscurity, dismissed by the previously enthusiastic West as ‘just a little savoury from the colonies’—going out of print in 1951—only to emerge in the seventies as a ‘modern classic’, with a laudatory introduction by English author Anthony Burgess (author of 'The Clockwork Orange' and many other novels, as well as a scholar of James Joyce), who called it ‘a capacious hold-all of a book’. It then again vanished (and went out of print) for another decade, mouldering in crates, until Salman Rushdie—after receiving the Booker Prize for 'Midnight’s Children' in 1981—acknowledged Desani as his literary predecessor and brought 'All About H. Hatterr' back into the spotlight. Sometime in the mid-eighties it predictably submerged once again and is presently out of print (even in India). But one can still find copies floating about
(on the ebbing flood of its ‘80s popularity); recently, I quite easily located a nice hardback—the first Indian edition (from 1985!) [note 1: all page number cited refer to the Arnold-Heinmann(India) 1985 edition; note 2: see notes at the end for information about the various editions].
Bas! Enough of printery-shimentery! So, if you’ll kindly allow me to adopt the lingo of H. Hatterr (more on this below) for the nonce, or, to put it most specific, for this paragraph—one might quite understandably be wondering at this moment in time:— Damme, who is this Desani bloke you’re on about? And H. Hatterr, what’s that feller’s obsession with twices, vis à vis, his orthographical peculiarities? What the hell does he need two H’s for, much less two T’s, and two R’s is sheer bloody extravagance. Well, now I’ll tell you all about…
…our friend H.H., who is a charming clever-naïve Anglo-Indian seeking  wisdom from the seven sages of India,  a bit of ready lucre and  the elusive charms of certain females, including a lion(ess)-tamer. Mr Hatterr’s ‘autobiographical’ (as it is presented) recounts the various misfortunes and humiliations he undergoes on his quest for the aforementioned goals: wisdom, capital and carnal knowledge [interjection: I just realised that H.H.’s pursuits match nicely against those set down in the ancient Sanskrit ‘Dharma Shastras’ (“Law Codes”): the 'Manusmriti' (social philosophy), the 'Arthashastra' (wealth, material gain & kingship) and the well-known 'Kama Sutra' (love & pleasure)—sorry, back to the story…]. These punishments include being run out of the European club, getting tricked by dubious swamis, his wife leaving him, having an ‘evil spirit’ forcibly ‘exorcised’ and coming damn close to being devoured by a ‘tame’
beast. His only true friend is his ‘Indian pal’ Banerrji, who annoys H.H. by quoting to him from the Bible, Shakespeare and the Kama Sutra, and who inadvertently causes many of Hatterr’s misfortunes.
'All About H. Hatterr' is full of the same bathos as Joyce’s 'Ulysses' (or Apuleius’ Latin classic 'The Golden Ass'-see my review), and like 'Ulysses' and 'Finnegan’s Wake', Desani’s book is a revolution in the art of novel. It is a jumble of philosophy and myth, culture-collision, puns and word-play, bazaar-gossip and irony.
Salman Rushdie, in his editorial preface to the anthology 'Mirrorwork: 50 years of Indian Writing [1947-1997]', introduces Desani thusly: ‘Milan Kundera once said that all modern literature descends from either Richardson’s 'Clarissa' or Sterne’s 'Tristram Shandy', and if Narayan [Desani’s literary contemporary, the author of the Malgudi novels: 'The Painter of Signs', 'The Vendor of Sweets', &c.] is India’s Richardson then Desani is his Shandean other. Hatterr’s dazzling, puzzling, leaping prose is the first genuine effort to go beyond the Englishness of the English language. His central figure, ‘fifty-fifty of the species’, the half-breed as unabashed anti-hero, leaps and capers behind [much subsequent Indian writing]….My own [Rushdie’s] writing, too, learned a trick or two from him’ (pg. xvi - 'Mirrorwork').
Anthony Burgess, in his 1970 introduction to 'All About H. Hatterr', says, ‘[T]he "meteque", “the writer with a non-English linguistic, racial or political background” who [, some critics, like F.W. Bateson claim that], being on the fringe of a language and the culture that begot it, lacks respect “for the finer rules of English idiom and grammar…[which leads them to] attem
pt effects of style, sometimes successfully, that the English writer would feel to be a perverse defiance of the genius of the language”…Most of us would say that “the finer rules” are essentially the property of non-creative pundits who, at the higher level, compile manuals of usage and, at the lower, scold children for constructing verbless sentences [or write grammar-checker-programs for Microsoft Word—my note]…
[English] is plastic, and as ready to yield to the "meteque" as to Mr Bateson. Indeed, if we are to regard Poles and Irishman [presumably Burgess means Joseph Conrad & James Joyce] as "meteques", there are grounds for supposing that the "meteques" have done more for English in the 20th century (meaning that they have shown what the language is capable of, or demonstrated what English is really like) than any of the pure-blooded men of letters who stick to the finer rules…['All About H. Hatterr'] is not pure English; it is, like the English of Shakespeare, Joyce and Kipling, gloriously impure’ (pg. 7, 10).
I fear that to give you a real taste of the artistic twists of language of 'All About H. Hatterr' requires a slightly lengthy excerpt (in this review which as of yet shows no signs of becoming any shorter…), so I beg pardon and only hope you’ll thank me for it (or at least bear with me). Here goes:
‘The name is H. Hatterr, and I am continuing…
Biologically, I am fifty-fifty of the species.
One of my parents was a European,
Christian-by-faith merchant merman (seaman). From which part of the Continent? Wish I could tell you. The other was an Oriental, a Malay Peninsula-resident lady, a steady non-voyaging, non-Christian human (no mermaid). From which part of the Peninsula? Couldn’t tell you either.
Barely a ye
ar after my baptism (in white, pure and holy), I was taken from Penang (Malay P.) to India (East). It was there that my old man kicked the bucket in a hurry. The via media? Chronic malaria and pneumonia-plus.
Whereupon, a local litigation for my possession ensued.
The odds were all in favour of the India-resident Dundee-born Scot, who was trading in jute.
He believed himself a good European, and a pious Kirk o’ Scotland parishioner, whose right-divine Scotch blud mission it was to rescue the baptised mite me from any illiterate non-pi heathen influence. She didn’t have a chance, my poor old ma, and the court gave him the possession award.
I don’t know what happened to her. Maybe, she lives. Who cares?
Rejoicing at the just conclusion of the dictate of his conscience, and armed with the legal interpretation of the testament left by my post-mortem seaman parent, willing I be brought up Christian, and the court custody award, the jute factor had me adopted by an English Missionary Society, as one of their many Oriental and mixed-Oriental orphan-wards. And, thus it was that I became a sahib by adoption, the Christian lingo (English) being my second vernacular from the orphan-adoption age onwards.
The E.M. Society looked after me till the age of fourteen or thereabouts.
It was then that I found the constant childhood preoccupation with the whereabouts of my mother unbearable, the religious routine unsuited to my temperament, the evangelical stuff beyond my ken, and Rev. the Head (of the Society’s school), M.A., D.Litt., D.D., also C.B.E., ex-Eton and Cantab. (Moths, Grates, and Home Civ), Protor par excellence, Feller of the Royal Geographical, Astronomical and Asiastic Societies (and a writer!), too much of a stimulus for my particular orphan constitution. (The sort of loco parentis who’d shower on you a penny, and warn you not to squander it on woman, and wine, and
“Help others! Help others!” he used to say. Knowing that the most deserving party needing help was self, I decided to chuck the school, get out into the open spaces of India, seek my lebansraum, and win my bread and curry all on my own.
And one warm Indian autumn night, I bolted as planned, having pinched, for voluntary study, an English dictionary, the Rev. the Head’s own-authored 'Latin Self-Taught' and 'French Self-Taught', the Missionary Society’s school stereoscope complete with slides (my second love after my mother) and sufficient Missionary funds lifted from the Head’s pocket to see me through life.
From that day onwards, my education became free and my own business. I fought off the hard-clinging feelings of my motherlessness. I studied the daily press, picked up tips from the stray Indian street-dog as well as the finest Preceptor-Sage available in the land. I assumed the style-name H. Hatterr (‘H’ for the nom de plume ‘Hindustaaniwalla’, and ‘Hatterr’, the nom de guerre inspired by Rev. the Head’s too-large-for-him-hat), and, by and by (autobiographical I, which see), I went completely Indian to an extent few pure non-Indian blood sahib fellers have done.
I have learnt from the school of Life; all the lessons, the sweet, the bitter, and the middling messy. I am debtor both to the Greeks and the Barbarians. And, pardon, figuratively speaking, I have had higher education too. I have been the personal disciple of the illustrious grey-beards, the Sages of Calcutta, Rangoon (now resident in India), Madras, Bombay, and the right Honourable the Sage of Delhi, the wholly Worshipful of Mogalsarai-Varanasi, and his naked Holiness Number One, the Sage of All India himself!’ (pg. 31-33).
But Desani’s 'meteque-masala-Hindustaaniwala' English
is by no means due to any lack of proficiency in the English language (as Burgess has already pointed out): in the forties, Desani received high praise in Britain not only for his writing, but also for his oratory. Throughout World War II, Desani lived in England where he lectured widely and was a speaker sponsored by the British Ministry of Information, broadcasting for the BBC (incidentally, at the Ministry, he worked with Eric Blair, better known as George Orwell, who chided him for writing a novel during the war—for it was during the war that H. Hatterr was born).
Desani was born in 1909 in Nairobi, Kenya of Sindhi [Indian] parentage. After the war, he went to Burma and India where, for the next 14 years, he studied Sanskrit, philosophy, Buddhism and the occult; practised raja-yoga and meditation under the guidance of gurus, travelling as far away as Japan for specialised instruction. During the mid-‘60s, he regularly contributed to the "Illustrated Weekly of India". He emigrated to the USA in the 1970s to teach at Boston University and later at the University of Texas at Austin, as Professor Emeritus of religion and philosophy.
Aside from 'All About H. Hatterr', his only other published work is '‘Hali’ & Collected Stories' ['Hali' is a prose poem]. Though, according to the slip-cover of my edition, he was going to publish another novel (finally!) entitled 'The Rissala'. However, G.V. Desani recently died on 15th November 2000 in Austin, Texas, ill and reclusive. I do not know what happened to 'The Rissala'.
Despite only producing one actual novel, Desani knew he had written a classic in 'All About H. Hatterr'. Shoma Chaudhury reports that, though chronically skint, teaching at the School of Oriental & African Studies in London while living out of a dismal, one room basement flat in Chelsea (which had a loo on the distant end of a cold court-yard),
Desani once came to his friend Khushwant Singh, who was the Press attaché in the Indian High Commission at the time, and asked him: ‘Can you recommend me for the Nobel Prize?’
Khushwant was dumb struck: ‘But you've only written that one book!’
‘So?’ countered Desani softly. ‘Eliot's written very little also!’
‘Only Nobel winners can recommend others’, Khushwant protested weakly (taken aback by Desani's ‘total lack of modesty’.)
‘No, even the government can’, insisted Desani steadfastly.
Worn down by his persistence, and undone by his ingenuous self-belief, Khushwant meekly signed the forms. Nothing came of it of course. The Nobel committee in Sweden checked things with Dr Radhakrishnan, who was then the ambassador there, and also a nominee for the Nobel. He was not a bit amused and ticked Khushwant off roundly. Desani continued to live with his inconvenient loo across the courtyard until he decided to set off to study in the Orient [for more about Desani, goto: www.gvdesani.org].
Returning to the novel itself: each of the seven main chapters begins with an ‘instruction’ from one of the sages of India (one sage per chapter). For example, chapter I opens with the ‘instruction’:
‘”In the empire of a Maharaja,” expounded the Sage of Calcutta to the disciple, “there once lived a potter, his name Ali Bee, who was stratagem personified. He owned an exceedingly fluent parrot, called Ahmed…The moral of the tale, fool, is not the chamber-maid. A wise man…must master the craft of dispelling credible illusions…The moral is ‘Be suspicious!’”’ (pg. 39, 41)
Each ‘instruction’ from a sage is followed by a ‘presumption’
; on the part of Mr Hatterr:
‘An international school of thought (minus a headmaster-elect) is antithesis.
"Antithesis" is my parlance for the fellers who always oppose. They hate mankind.
They maintain that human nature is rotten to the core!
I am often tempted to agree with the school, and join the classes of hate…’ (pg. 41)
And each ‘presumption’ is followed by a ‘life-encounter’, which is the bulk of the chapter:
‘The incidents take place in India.
I was exceedingly hard-up for cash: actually, in debt.
And, it is amazing, how, out in the Orient, the shortage of cash gets mixed up with females, somehow!
In this England, they say, if a feller is broke, females, as a matter of course, forsake.
Stands to reason.
Whereas, out in the East, they attach
Damme, this is the Oriental scene for you!
Every feller I knew out East, whenever he was down and out, had to answer a literal habeas corpus call from the female side!
The member of the specie, who had a crush on me, was the dhobin: viz., my Indian washerwoman.
“Damme, Bannerji”, I confided in my pal, “I am in a hell of a trouble!….I loathe the very sight of her…a woman of her age ought to know better!”
“Does she suffer from a morbid fascination of the male-sex anatomy? Is she an Elephant?” [asked Bannerji]
“Kindly explain that interrogation, old feller. I have lived a sheltered life.”
“Well, Mr H. Hatterr,” said my pal, “as an Indian, and a Hindu student-gentleman, I am deeply attached to the ancient classics. According to the sages, all women can be summed up
and recognised under four species. In other words, the Lotus, the Art, the Sea-Shell, and the Elephant. These are the four sorts of Woman. The Lotus-woman is A1 vintage. She has a face as pleasing as the moon. She is lovely as a lily. She launches a thousand ships, as Mr Marlowe says…”’ (pg. 41-42)
So, if you’ve any interest in modern Indian literature, or enjoy the works of Laurence Sterne, James Joyce, Anthony Burgess or Salman Rushdie, I highly recommend 'All About H. Hatterr'. Like 'Ulysses', it’s not an easy read (but by no means is it as difficult as 'Ulysses'), but it’s a highly-rewarding book which—though regrettably largely unknown—is revolutionary in English literature. One can also find an excerpt from 'All About H. Hatter' in the excellent anthology of Indian literature, 'Mirrorwork', edited by Salman Rushdie & Elizabeth West (Rushdie’s 3rd wife, whom he left for the spicy Tamil model/actress/cookery-book-writer Padma Lakshmi [see my review of her book EASY EXOTIC]).
Though 'ALL ABOUT H. HATTERR' is currently out-of-print, it should not be difficult to locate a copy [I believe indiaclub.com has some copies], and again, I do highly recommend it. But let us hope that soon H. Hatterr enjoys another long-overdue ‘monsoon’ of renewed recognition:
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‘An Oriental gent, whose only assets in the world were a sable fur coat and a genuine delight in information and learning, spent the better half of his life digging up a pyramid.
He dug, because a seer had confided in him, that inside the pyramid was hidden stuff beyond man’s ken: many priceless diamonds!
The task was super-human. But the feller carried on, and on, digging like kingdom come.
r years of silent secret toiling, hill-pecking and hammering, at last, the pyramid became hollow…the feller found a perfectly-shaped lair: a tiny cave, with a minute oval entrance, leading thereinto…Did he recover the treasure, do you think?
In the now roofless cave he found, instead, a family of white mice…Hell, years of solitary digging, to catch a glimpse of meagre mice!
…He gave up digging for good; and – fall of man! – he climbed down; evolved backwards. From the high station of a seeker of wisdom and learning, he went below; to the lowest bottom-rung of the human progress-ladder. He decided to become a writer! – belong to the frisky fraternity of autobiography-makers, the fellers who keep a tally of their does, and, in the sunset of their days, make an oyez to humanity, asserting the motto, Everyman, I will be thy guide! – damme, clowning and vaudeville-turning!’ (pg. 30-31)
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First published – Aldor, 1948
re-issued – Saturn Press, 1950
revised edition – Farrar, Straus & Young (NY, USA), 1951
further revised edition w/ intro by Anthony Burgess – The Bodley Head, 1970
revised edition with additional final chapter – Lancer Books (USA), 1972
this edition with further revisions – Penguin Books, 1972
reprinted – King Penguin, 1982
reprinted – Arnold-Heinemann (India), 1985
subsequently reprinted – ????
I recommend trying to locate a post-1972 edition, due to the revisions+additional chapter.