Govindas Vishnoodas Desani was born in Nairobi, Kenya to Indian parents in 1909. When he was five years old, the family moved back to Sindh, India (now in Pakistan). During the first few decades of his life, he travelled back and forth between Britain and India, as a freelancer. In wartime London, G. V. Desani penned his magnum opus All About H. Hatterr, proclaiming incredulously in its Preface that “though I was attending a world war, the first row, I worked.” First published in 1948 by Francis Aldor, Desani would go on to revise the novel numerous times. The book opened to immediate acclaim, with Thomas Ashton calling it “a Joycean inspired coterie pleasure of the late Forties” and T. S. Eliot remarked that “[i]n all my experience, I have not met with anything quite like it”, which was publicized on all subsequent cover designs of the book. The first revision of Hatterr came in 1951 with inserted “afterthoughts” and footnotes.
All About H. Hatterr follows the eponymous Hatterr in his journey through India as an Anglo-Malay man. Through his encounters with religious sages, all seven of whom dupe him either by extorting his money, or clothes, or both, Hatterr learns fundamental life lessons which he imparts to the readers as a ‘Digest’ in the beginning of each section. While Hatterr is ardent in his exploration of wisdom, his takeaways are derived from his ‘Life Encounters’ and not directly from the sages that opine. Desani’s ultimate irony culminates in depicting to the reader the sage-like status that Hatterr himself acquires by the end when his friend Banerrji turns into his disciple and when sage Rambeli defends Hatterr’s spiritual awakening.
In 1970 appeared the third revision to Hatterr, this time with a Preface by Anthony Burgess who praised Desani’s eclectic lexicon and means of expression, stating that “[i]t is what might be called Whole Language, in which philosophical terms, the colloquialisms of Calcutta and London, Shakespearian archaisms, bazaar whinings, quack spiels, references to the Hindu pantheon, the jargon of Indian litigation, and shrill babu irritability seethe together. It is not pure English; it is, like the English of Shakespeare, Joyce, and Kipling, gloriously impure.”
Despite his immense influence on following generations of Indian writers, most notably Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy and Irvin Allan Sealy, Desani is only remembered through the website set up by his former student Todd Katz, and a single book-length biography by Molly Ramanujan. Desani is periodically remembered every few decades, by scholars hoping to solve the puzzle that is Hindustani Hatterr’s ‘mosaic-organon of Life’. This article argues that the reason for Desani’s dismissal on the global literary stage is due to his novel’s refusal to conform to stringent genre conventions, instead opting to work against them through the use of gestural parody.
Novel as Gesture
Desani begins All About H. Hatterr with a declarative “WARNING!” page in which he implores for the book to be categorized as a ‘gesture’ by publishing agents. The ‘Indian middle-man’ alerts the author that “Sir, there is no immediate demand for gestures. There is immediate demand for novels. Sir, we are literary agents not free agents.” The author’s defeated reply to identify it according to market demands i.e. as a novel, foreshadows the book’s sustained straddling of genres and academic disciplines. In the seventy years since its publication, Hatterr has been analysed through the lens of modernism, postmodernism, post-structuralism, postcolonialism and most recently, theology. The original publication even had as its subtitle “A Gesture.” Desani anticipates critics’ struggle in placing the text within any particular structural framework, and proposes a solution that allows his book to reach the masses, through negotiations with agents. Even so, his warning that the book is a “melodramatic gesture” is intentionally placed to ward off those that are looking for a Western-style novel, as gestures are “common form in the East” but not in the West. The book begins with a juxtaposition of “East” and “West” and this construct unravels throughout Desani’s use of language, idioms and themes. He forewarns his readers that the outlandish manner of storytelling is not native to the British public (who were the first to read the book as, interestingly, Hatterr was not available in India before 1985 when it was reprinted by Arnold-Heinemann in Delhi).
The structure is taken from ancient Indian exempla stories in which “the questing acolyte asks something of a guru and is given a story from which a philosophical truth is extracted,” while the satirical style resembles Lawrence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. The bildungsroman narrative of H Hatterr learning something new in each of his encounters and sharing it with the readers is reminiscent of didactic tales found in ancient sacred Hindu texts such as the Upanishads and the Puranas that convey moral lessons. His chapter structure begins with a Digest followed by an Instruction of wisdom acquired, which he then goes on to contextualise by recounting the Life Encounters that led him to his conclusions. However, he (Hatterr) satirizes the earnestness of his own didacticism through melodrama and parody of the kind witnessed in the very first chapter where he expounds his legitimacy to opine: “My heraldic motto is per ardua ad aspidistra!” Desani presents Hatterr’s spiritual autobiography to the reader through a treatment of satire as a gestural tool.
His careful dissolution of the dichotomy between East and West is also achieved through a coalescing of genre and identity. Desani and the titular character H. Hatterr are Anglo-Indians— ‘hyphenated’ individuals, who struggle to fit in either here (India) or there (Europe). H. Hatterr’s very name is an amalgam of East and West — H stands for ‘Hindustani’ meaning Indian, whereas Hatterr is an obvious reference to Mad Hatter from Lewis Carol’s Alice in Wonderland, a British classic. A ‘gesture’ serves to dismantle the difficulties of assimilation through its shared history between continents, much like the writer(s). Paul Sharrad posits gesture as “a performative sign that stands in cool opposition to the fixity of writing and administration.” Desani’s comic, performative gestural features in Hatterr allude to the artifice of expression through writing. In both European Existentialist philosophy and Eastern fantastical narratives can be found “the thesis that life is fundamentally absurd.” Gestural comparisons with James Joyce therefore abound — Christy L. Burns interprets the ‘art of gesture’ as a parody; in Desani, this plays out as “a brand of wordplay that self-consciously mixes the abstract and the material.”
To Be or Not to Be… Modernist
In his Introduction ‘ALL ABOUT…’ to the book, Desani narrates his publication process with the manuscript. It was rejected multiple times before he took it to “Specialists.” He makes his stance clear when he says that although “they mattered,” he would not allow “Betty Bloomsbohemia” (assumed to be Virginia Woolf) to dictate the value of the book. Even as his prose is aligned with that of other modernists by all who have read him, Desani alerts the reader to the difference between him and them. Betty asks him to explain “the ABC of the book” during their meeting in an effort to find merit in its “verbal contortionism”, but is dismayed as he argues that “I never was involved in the struggle for newer forms of expression.” Although the novelty of his style of writing would suggest otherwise, Desani denounces Ezra Pound’s slogan to “Make It New,” as “he implicitly recognizes that the broad category of the ‘new’ is actually regulated by a specific social formation—the metropolitan arbiters of advanced high culture, whose standards are set by the high estimation of Joyce, Eliot, Woolf, and company.”
While some early critics of the text called it apolitical and ahistorical for the absence of overt contextual signifiers (the book was published immediately after India won independence and yet, has no description of the freedom movement), the text has since been historicized and recontextualized through the study of modernist elements in it. Smith finds its “ambiguity” as indicative of its gestural politics, with Harrex stating that Desani’s “absurd humor is both an original and classical response to modern existence.” Paul Sharrad locates Desani’s political underpinnings in the colonial context, of which he writes, “Post-coloniality drawing on the trickster-motifs of its literatures as much as on the slipperiness of Derridean signifiers, should perhaps be seen as a gesture.” Desani utilized gesture, in its subscription of “rigmarole English, staining your goodly godly tongue” to convey a struggle with identity. It’s a tool to illustrate “the hidden mechanisms of power (imperial and nationalist) operating within such cultural constructions as the ‘spiritual East.’” Upon stripping this exaggerated tongue, complexities of life under the Empire surface. James Marley argues that Desani’s language is unreliable as when Hatterr makes the case in front of Bloomsbohemia that “[t]o one, M.P. stands for Member of Parliament. To another, it might mean major parasite. Depends on his experience.”
Even as Desani acknowledges that his use of diction can be misleading to the readers, he washes his hands off of the words that are resultantly uttered on the pages of the text as his Preface ends with Desani proclaiming that “What follows is wholly H. Hatterr, his work, do believe.” Desani begins his Preface with a warning of its misinterpretation, and ends by denouncing the role of the author. Kanaganayakam argues that the text is a paradox: “The shishya [student] in search of a guru provides the structural basis for the text. But the language mocks, defamiliarizes, and ridicules the process. If realism aligned itself with the nationalist claim, counter-realism here is stoking the fires of scepticism.” Desani’s use of gesture also serves as a political tool with which he reveals the façade that both European modernists and Indian traditionalists put up when presenting their work as concrete. Desani destabilizes the notion of a text as being self-righteous by distancing himself from H. Hatterr’s style of storytelling.
With every quest that Hatterr goes on, in which religious sages’ sham practices are uncovered, Hatterr gets closer to spirituality, not away from it. Hatterr’s central tenet is “Life is contrast”, which might also mean a plane of extremes; Hatterr fits on neither side of this contrasting puzzle of identity and thus, only achieves “nirvana” in moments of suspension. “There is no room in this world of essentializing colonials and essentializing nationalists [i.e. life of contrast] for the unruly hybridity that Hatterr represents or for his parodic political gesturing.” Hatterr’s fulfilment of his life motto only happens in moments, just as Hatterr’s writing conforms to various genres in fleeting moments.
Desani is more iconoclastic than Joyce; while the latter holds out hope for the amelioration of Irish nationalism with Eastern spiritualism, and with his use of Irish idioms as semantically conveying Leopold Bloom’s position in society, the former’s prose is of “detonative opaqueness” where Hatterr’s “Hatterrese English” (coined by Desani’s biographer Molly Ramanujan) and his recognition of the neo-colonial acculturation makes him “more Joycean than Joyce.” Srinivas Aravamudan characterizes Desani as more modernist than Joyce: “Joyce’s high-modernist epic [Ulysses], itself a mock-epic, is raised by Desani to the third degree: Hatterr is a mock-Joycean novel and hence, a mock-mock epic.” All About H. Hatterr pushes the boundaries of modernist art to an extent that dissociates from it, while still approaching this break from inside the folds of modernism.
Critics have speculated that All About H. Hatterr has been neglected due to its being “before its time” while others have found that the constant comparison to Joyce has overshadowed the authenticity of Desani’s stylistics. The paratextual picaresque novel’s refusal to abide by the narrow conventions set by European high modernism has translated into its dismissal as mimicry whereas Hatterr’s aim is to highlight the “absurdity of the mimic man.” Neither fully modernist nor postcolonial proper, Hatterr is a testament to Desani’s refusal to adhere to Life’s Contrasts. Just as Hatterr professes “all improbables are probable in India” at the beginning of his gesture, all interpretations are misinterpretations of All About H. Hatterr.
Sheelalipi Sahana (she/her) is a doctoral candidate in English Literature at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. She is working on the confluence of space, place and identity in the formation of modern Muslim women’s subjectivities in India. You can reach her at S.Sahana@sms.ed.ac.uk.
- Katz, Todd. “All About G. V. Desani,” accessed Aug. 10, 2021, https://www.desani.org/home; Singh, Amardeep. “More than “priestly mumbo-jumbo”: Religion and Authorship in All About H. Hatterr.” Journal of Postcolonial Writing 46, no. 1 (February 2010): 92-93. DOI: 10.1080/17449850903478205.
- Desani, G. V, All About H. Hatterr (New Delhi: Aleph, 2018): x.
- Both quotes from Sharrad, Paul, “G. V. Desani”, in The Oxford History of the Novel in English, ed. Ralph Crane et al. (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2016): 381.
- Quoted in Lennon, Brian, “Language as Capital”, in In Babel’s Shadow (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2010): 42.
- Desani, H. Hatterr, viii.
- Desani, H. Hatterr, viii.
- Sharrad, “G. V. Desani”, 381.
- Desani, H. Hatterr, 65. Emphasis in original.
- Sharrad, Paul, “The Post-Colonial Gesture,” in A Talen(ted) Digger: Creations, Cameos and Essays in Honour of Anna Rutherford, ed. Gordon Collier et al. (Atlanta: Brill, 2016), 136.
- Harrex, S. C. “The Novel as Gesture,” in Awakened Conscience: Studies in Commonwealth Literature, ed. C. D. Narasimhaiah (Hong Kong: Heinemann, 1978), 78.
- Quoted in Smith, Paul R. “‘Ambiguity at Its Best!’: Historicizing G. V. Desani’s All About H. Hatterr.” Ariel 40, no. 2-3 (2009): 115.
- Smith, “Ambiguity,” 115.
- Desani, H. Hatterr, xii.
- Desani, H. Hatterr, xii-xiii.
- Goldstone, Andrew, ““Hatterr Abroad: G. V. Desani on the Stage of World Literature.” Contemporary Literature 55, no. 3 (Fall 2014): 492.
- Smith, “Ambiguity”, 113-15.
- Harrex, “The Novel as Gesture,” 84.
- Sharrad, “The Post-Colonial Gesture,” 138.
- Desani, H. Hatterr, 10.
- Smith, “Ambiguity,” 117.
- Desani, H. Hatterr, xii. Emphasis in original.
- Ibid., xvii.
- Kanaganayakam, Chelva. “H. Hatterr and Sauce Anglaise: G.V. Desani,” in Counterrealism and Indo-Anglian Fiction (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2002), 71.
- Desani, H. Hatterr, 261. Emphasis in original.
- Smith, “Ambiguity,” 119.
- Goers, Peter, “Kink’s English: Whole Language and G. V. Desani’s All About H. Hatterr.” New Literature Review 4 (1978): 30.
- Ramanujan, Molly. G. V. Desani: A Writer and Worldview, Arnold-Heinemann, 1984.
- Smith, “Ambiguity,” 117.
- Aravamudan, Srinivas. “Postcolonial Affiliations: Ulysses and All About H. Hatterr,” in Transcultural Joyce, ed. Karen Lawrence (New York: Cambridge UP, 1998), 113.
- Kanaganayakam, “H. Hatterr and Sauce Anglaise,” 69.
- Desani, H. Hatterr, 2.