A Forgotten Indian Masterpiece: All About H. Hatterr by G.V. Desani


It is matter of utter despair that a book like this, of such caliber and quality, is long forgotten. This is the first major attempt to break the pure English and mix it with oriental colloquial. Desani did something for Indian literature as Joyce did for Irish literature. Though Desani never wrote another novel, and though he published few short stories and a poem (Hali) apart from this, he was immediately recognized by the likes of T.S. Eliot and Saul Bellow.

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This novel is essentially a polyglot one, but it goes on to break the general assumption that anything polyglot is bound to be difficult (the major reason of this, obviously, none other than Finnegans Wake). I have never read a funnier book than this. Desani’s innovative play with words makes you read a page again and again and chuckle each time.

The reviewer at the Los Angeles Times rightly says,

“”I write rigmarole English,” Desani taunts, “staining your goodly, godly tongue.” Bless him, he does mash it up, bending orthography, stretching syntax, mixing in shards of Hindi, Hungarian, Spanish, Italian, Japanese, German and a goodly dose of balderdash, whilst tossing in references to Whitman, Shakespeare, Socrates, Freud and appeals to Kama and Laxmi as well as to Allah and Christ. Only a quasi-outsider (an Irishman, say) could have such an irreverent ear for the Anglo-Saxon tongue. But “Hatterr” is more readable by miles than “Finnegans Wake,” and a lot more fun.

 

To introduce to the style of this novel, let me quote H. Hatterr (Desani) himself in chapter III, page 120.

(…Wherefore, pious brethren, by confessing I lie, yoiks! I tell the truth, sort of topholy trumpeting-it, by the Pharisee G.V. Desani: see the feller’s tract All About …, publisher, the same publishing company): a language deliberately designed to mystify the majority, tempt ‘em to start guessing, and interpreting our real drift, and allegory, what the hell we mean: pursue our meaning on their sthula (gross), the sukshana (subtle) and para (supreme) planes, and levels, and still miss the issue and dash their heads against the crazy-paved rock of confusion.

We are getting the drift. Though the book seems pointless rambling (allusion to one of the characters in the book Y. Rambeli .. Why rambling?) of a person who loses in every adventure he goes to, the book is intricately structured. To quote from the paper: Chaudhury, Sarbani. “All About H. Hatterr – Desani’s ‘Novel Gesture’.” Glocal Colloquies 1.1 (2015): 38-53 .

The subterranean method in madness, mentioned earlier, becomes more pronounced as we encounter the making of fiction. Despite his numerous disclaimers, Desani’s novel-gesture (as I shall persist in calling it) has a rigorous structure: the two epigraphs labelled “Warning!”, and the production account followed by a “Mutual Introduction” of the inscribed author (Hatterr), serve as a kind of combined prologue for the seven chapters recounting Hatterr’s encounter with the seven sages. The rear is brought up by an epilogue labelled “An Afterthought” supposedly penned by another fictional character in the work, a lawyer who, as mentioned previously, prefixes the pompous title of “504 SrimanVairagi, Paribrajaka, Vanaprasthi, Acharya” to his more simple but nevertheless comic name “YatiRambeli” (giganticbelly) to suit the lofty task of providing a worthy defence for the hapless Hatterr. Apart from undermining the very defence it intends to uphold, the ‘naming ceremony’ is a dig at the aristocrats’ and god-men’s tendency to legitimise and iterate their political/ religious status by claiming a long line of descent from royal/ holy forbears.

Seven chapters form the main stay of the book where Hatterr, seeking lucre, lust and illumination, encounters seven sages across India who take on increasingly presumptuous names as the work progresses – sages of Calcutta, Rangoon (now resident in India), Madras, Bombay, “right Honourable sage of Delhi,” “wholly worshipful of Mogalsarai-Varanasi” and “naked Holiness number One, the Sage of All India himself!” – matching the ludicrousness of the ‘life experience’ encountered and the lesson learned thereof. Save for one, where Hatterr gains a princely sum of Rs 1000/- (Chapter IV), all the escapades conclude in inevitable disaster with Hatterr, very much the modern prototype of the ‘gull’ in classical drama, barely escaping by the skin of his teeth.

Each of the seven chapters is given an intriguing and often half-finished title – Chapter I. “The Sage, He Spake…,” Chapter II. “…Versus the Impressario,” Chapter III. “Archbishop Walrus versus Neophyte the Bitter-One,” Chapter IV.“Apropos Supernatural Agent…,” Chapter V. “Assault below the Belt,” Chapter VI. “…Salute the ‘Kismet’” and, Chapter VII. “Punchum and Another, with Contempt” – that literalise the ensuing content. For instance, Chapter V. “Assault below the Belt,” is literally an assault on Hatterr’s loincloth by a demented Naga sanyasi to relieve Hatter of his hidden stash of money so as to release him from the clutches of “Evil-Triumphant” green monster (223)!

To show you some example of ultra-creativity of Desani, few small excerpts are presented below.

Excerpt 1:

” 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 year 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
song!)

“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).

 

Excerpt 2:

PRESUMPTION: ‘Kismet’, i.e., fate — if at all anything, and as potent as suspected for centuries — is a dam’ baffling thing!
It defies a feller’s rational: his entire conception as to his soma, pneuma, and psyche!
Why did a feller like me commit matrimony with a femme fatale like Mrs H. Hatterr (née Rialto), the waxed Kiss-curl?
A personal query, but I don’t mind answering…
If only I could!
All I know is that I wanted to raise a family: add to the world’s vital statistics and legitimate: have a niche in the community, for my own kid, to hand out the wager till the end. And since you can’t achieve this without a wife — the neighbours wouldn’t let you! the police wouldn’t let you! — I equipped myself with the blarney-phrases, convinced this female that she was real jam, had me led to the middle aisle and gave the ready ‘I do’ to the amenwallah her brother had hired for the occasion.
This I did, knowing, hell, that between us was all the temperamental difference in the world!
Till death us do part! this museum-piece and I! And that promise — what a stingo! — after a conflict dating back to the donkey’s Sundays!
The female — contrast? — was poles apart: though, between the cur Jenkins, me and the Duke Humphrey, it did seem once that she was going to win my regards for good, by delivering me an heir-presumptive — my own piccolo le fils — to survive me (and be added to the looney-bin). But despite days and days of biological observation and anticipation — the wasted reference to the obstetric table and pre-occupation with the signs of labour — it didn’t come off. (Backed the wrong filly, or, maybe, something the matter with me as create-or!).

 

After writing this novel, Desani got deeply involved with spirituality and Buddhism and didn’t publish another book. He nonetheless inspired Rushdie to take the lead and expound upon the newly invented babu-vernacular and write another Indian masterpiece, Midnight’s Children (Rushdie’s essay “Damme, This Is the Oriental Scene for You!” is based upon this very novel).

I wanted to type and present few more wonderful excerpts but what can I do? Every single page of this book is shouting brilliance and I can’t choose! Desani was so sure about the importance and genius of this work that he had the following conversation with Khushwant Singh:

“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 ingenuous self-belief, Khushwant meekly signed the forms. Nothing came of it of course. The Nobel Committee checked with Dr.Radhakrishnan, Ambassador to Sweden and a nominee for the Nobel at the time. Totally unamused, he ticked Khushwant off roundly and Desani continued to live with his inconvenient loo across the courtyard until he took off for the Orient.

(source: http://www.dooyoo.co.uk/user/319051.html)

I’ll end my discussion about the book with the praises about it by the greats:

Anthony Burgess: “…it is the language that makes the book. . . . It is not pure English; it is like Shakespeare, Joyce, and Kipling, gloriously impure.”

T.S. Eliot: “… Certainly a remarkable book. In all my experience, I have not met anything quite like it. It is amazing that anyone should be able to sustain a piece of work in this style and tempo at such length.”

C.E.M. Joad : “… an original and remarkable book. It starts well and continues at the same level … to my surprise … the gusto, tempo and style all being maintained until the end.”

Edmund Blunden : “… Something remarkable here by this most curious and resourceful among writers. I can’t think anybody who pays attention will miss that.”

Saul Bellow : “I didn’t read many books while writing Augie. One I did read and love was All About H. Hatterr…. So, what about All About? I hate to be siding with T.S. Eliot… but what can you do?”

Salman Rushdie: “This is the ‘babu English,’ the semi-literate, half-learned English of the bazaars, transmuted by erudition, highbrow monkeying around, and the impish magic of Desani’s unique phrasing and rhythm into an entirely new kind of literary voice.”

Damme, buy the book!

 

 

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