All about Desani: G V Desani was feted by literary England. Then he disappeared. Naseem Khan traces the life of this forgotten author

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The Independent Culture
Imagine you are on a literary tour, taking in the homes of writers whose books have made an impact on English literature.

You are just now in Austin, Texas, and your air-conditioned coach is drawing up on a quiet, wooded side road. Beside you, higgledy-piggledy steps waver up a bank to the secluded, ground floor apartment of Govindas Vishnoodas Desani. Desani? An impact on English literature?

Before you ask for your money back, take a look at an extraordinary and almost forgotten slice of literary history, and then instead praise your guide for perspicacity. For you are standing at the door of an author who enjoyed instant acclaim in his time, unlike many other bold and experimental writers. T S Eliot's praise might sound (unfairly) as if it had a circumspect edge - 'In all my experience, I have never read anything quite like it.' But praise from others was unequivocal: the poet Edmund Blunden commended 'this most curious and resourceful among writers'. Critics like D J Enright found the book 'extremely funny and ingenious and touching and mischievous'.

In July 1951 in London, surely the literary send-off of the decade took place, with over 150 'distinguished guests' (the memorial brochure said), led by E M Forster, gathering at a London club to bid farewell to Desani, off to India after years in Britain. Messages of appreciation poured in from the great and the good - CP Snow, Edwin Muir, Leonard Woolf, Woodrow Wyatt, C Day-Lewis, Compton McKenzie, J R Ackerley, Christopher Fry. More was to come. In 1970 Bodley Head reprinted Desani's comic oeuvre, All About H Hatterr, with a preface in which Anthony Burgess expressed himself 'honoured and delighted to introduce a wonderfully heartening book to a new generation of readers', a book that had been 'confirmed in the rank of modern classic'.

But for all that, it is likely that few on the imaginary tour bus, literate though they are, would recall Desani. Out of print in Britain (though not in India or the United States, where Saul Bellow once made Hatterr his Book of the Year), it has dropped out of literary history, with its author missing and presumed dead.

Ironically, however, All About H Hatterr could well be even more in tune with literary modes now than it was in 1948. Its anarchic humour, creative games with language and the reeling road it consciously plots between East and West sets it in a tradition that connects with magic realism and prefigures Rushdie's creative search for a cultural synthesis. Its hero, H Hatterr is, in his way, a very modern man: the abandoned son of an English seaman and a lady of Penang, he embarks on a series of adventures (or misadventures) around India, following the instruction of a series of distinctly seedy sages. With his disloyal dog Jenkins in tow, he is blackballed from the club, takes to the road and works as a lion-tamer, escapes bouts of litigation, finds and loses a fortune and ponders the nature of enlightenment. He does so in prose that veers and tacks, taking in a dash of random languages from Sanskrit to Finnish and literary references that give weight to comparisons with Flann O'Brien. 'It is not pure English,' Burgess writes. 'It is, like the English of Shakespeare, Joyce and Kipling, gloriously impure.'

Desani's home for the past 20 or so years fits the begetter of Hatterr. Like the book, it is an amalgam, a mish-mash and gloriously impure. It has the air of a warren. All on one level, taking up the whole of a ground floor, it gives no impression of true scale. For Desani has divided and sub-divided into a series of small interconnected cubbyholes, all crammed with ephemera, memorabilia, piles of magazines, devotional objects, books on everything from Chinese medicine to American law and knick-knacks, both curious and gimcrack. 'I like to collect little things. They please me,' Desani said. 'That too is a kind of worship.'

At 84 Desani is startlingly energetic, in mind if not in body. His eyes are failing, which limits his prodigious reading, and problems with his knee joints have slowed his pace to a painful shuffle. He thinks aloud when he talks, making no concessions to the fact that the listener might not always know the characters or the references in his line of argument. Nor does he give much credence to chronological thinking.

But Desani has never fitted into conventional structures. As a child of seven or eight, in Hyderabad, Sind (then Indian and now Pakistani), he was expelled for refusing to copy out incomprehensible words in the alien language, Hindi. 'It seemed stupid to me.' He ran away from home three times, rebelling against a father whose materialism revolted him, spurned by a mother ('a slave') who did not address him for two years.

Early on, the pundits and religious gurus of Hatterr made their entrance in his life, pointing him in directions that seemed arbitrary but which he believes always had a profound point. 'One stage after another, dramatic things happened, but they happened almost automatically. I can't tell you I take any credit for this - they just happened.'

His first arrival in England was one of those happenstances. He had been taken to Kenya by his father's brother to deal with a family property. Knowing that his uncle was an unscrupulous man, Desani decided to scarper. He slipped out to the British authorities to try and get a passport. Where did he want to go, asked the fatherly sergeant-major type. 'I should have said Bombay, but I had picked up gossip that there was something called a British Empire passport, so I told him I wanted to go to the British Empire. 'British Empire it is, me boy,' he said.' Ten days later the 17-year-old Desani was bound for London, with pounds 40 in his pocket.

His charisma, youth and good looks found him support and kindness. But two years later he was back in India, about to throw himself 'relentlessly', as he put it, into life. Journalism seemed a good idea, and he talked himself into a job for the Associated Press. 'I went into their office and said: 'I will send you dispatches from Sind.' I had never sent dispatches before in my life.'

The war years saw Desani back in London, broadcasting and lecturing for the Ministry of Information, Imperial Institute and others. He lived in a damp, seven shillings a week room in Maida Vale and at one time slept rough on the Embankment. 'It's so cold, so cold a wind. An elderly Englishman told me, 'you take my paper'. Newspaper had to be next to the skin for warmth. I didn't know these things . . .'

The realisation of class differences - part too of life in India - bit deep and led to 'a terrible tension', an anger, he said, with 'hypocrisy and liars'. He read obsessively, researching in libraries. The result, surprisingly, was All About H Hatterr. 'By that time my range was such that I could speak with authority. I gave this spacious mind to this fellow Hatterr. He had all the disadvantages, like no parents. He is everyone.'

Not an easy book, he wrote and rewrote it: 'All the time I worried about it. No matter how I tried, the man was not real.' Finding a publisher was equally hard. Eventually, a friend, Stern Rubach, director of Reuters, put Desani in touch with a Hungarian called Aldor. The publisher of the Encyclopedia of Sexual Knowledge, he had stockpiled five years' quota of paper and was persuaded, by T S Eliot's recommendation, to take on Hatterr. But Aldor didn't know how to market the book, despite its glowing reviews, so Desani bought back the contract.

It must have seemed strange to receive a telegram nearly 20 years later from Bodley Head asking for world rights to Hatterr. Desani had written little. He had been engaged on a single-minded spiritual search, often in Burma and India. He had pledged himself to the service of the Devi, a divine female principle. His first reaction was to wire back, 'Cannot come.' But change was in the air. 'I do things because the Devi wants. I have given up my will.' At the same time, urgent requests were coming from the University of Austin to be a visiting professor. He sent back the terse message, 'No honours', confessing his utter lack of formal education; Austin was not deterred and he lectured there on Theravadin Buddhism till retirement.

His retirement has been busily taken up, particularly in recent years, with work on ancient Indian predictional texts, one of which startlingly predicted his own life. And it is also full of memories and insistent ghosts that jostle for attention in his vivid, urgent monologues. There is the nightmare of the London blitz ('the screams, the personal fear'), the anguish of struggle ('I am cursed with feelings - cannot sleep, cannot rest'), his widowed aunt searching for her runaway nephew, examples of the 'shame culture' of India. 'All experiences influence my writing.' So why then is Hatterr so funny? 'I developed this as a defence. I found out that things can be funny.'

But at the same time, Desani holds hard to a fundamental conviction of unity. 'Wisdom truly is one. All creatures, all animals, all entities. That a person can have a vision of this - even this fellow Hatterr - that really is my personal conclusion.'

In the long nights, he meditates on this and rewrites Hatterr in his head. 'Ideas still come to me to improve it. Oh yes. Excellent ideas. As the last line of Hatterr puts it: 'Carry on, boys, and continue like hell]'

(Photographs omitted)

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