G. V. DESANI
Govindas Vishnoodas Desani, journalist, public
speaker, novelist, and professor of philosophy, was a pioneer of
a modern, or postmodern, Indian sensibility. Opposed to Gandhi’s
noncoöperation policy during World War II, Desani was at once
a champion of Eastern ideas and a critic of religious practices.
His novel, All About H. Hatterr (1948), is a classic of
the Indo-Anglian genre. There and in the prose poem Hali,
he uses colloquialisms of both London and Delhi to achieve melodies
in a passionate voice, drawing on the symbolisms of two cultures.
Born in Nairobi in 1909, and raised in India, Desani traveled on his own
to England at the young age of eighteen where he was recognized as a prodigy
and granted a readership at the British Museum. In his twenties, he returned
to India as a correspondent for the Times of India, Reuters, and
the Associated Press. Desani lectured in the employ of the Bombay, Baroda,
and Central India Railway on the antiquities of Rajputana, Ajmer, and Delhi.
Traveling throughout the Subcontinent as a journalist but often styling
himself as a seeker of religious truth, he encountered gurus and fakirs
in their own settings and on their own terms, gathering experience that
would inform his fiction. Back in England during the war, he was a lecturer
and BBC broadcaster. After publishing Hatterr in 1948 to immediate
acclaim (in a week the book went into a second printing), Desani again
returned to India in the fifties, becoming, in the following decade, a
provocative cultural commentator for a popular newspaper magazine. Desani
immigrated to the U.S. in 1968 to teach Eastern religion and philosophy.
He taught at UT as a lecturer in the spring of 1967-68 and 1968-69, and
was appointed professor of philosophy at in the spring of 1970.* He retired
and became professor emeritus in 1978. G.V. Desani died in Dallas, November
Desani was an autodidact who reports running away from school as a youth
three times, reaching England while still a minor. Fortunate in having
his talent recognized by George Lansbury, leader of the Labor Party, the
teenager spent a privileged year in the British Museum, with access to
the world’s greatest collection of Indian art. Desani returned to
India to make his own way as a correspondent for London newspapers. Other
opportunities opened and he began a career as a lecturer known for a style
both entertaining and eloquent. During World War II, Desani was tapped
for service as an adult educator and employed by the British Armed Forces
and the Imperial Institute among several distinguished government and private
institutions. Speaking to overflowing audiences in Edinburgh, Glascow,
Manchester, and other venues, he gave talks simultaneously broadcast to
thousands of troops stationed in Britain. Literary critic Anthony Burgess
writes in a preface to a revised edition of Hatterr in 1972 that
he remembers Desani’s oratory showing “in live speech the vitality
of the British rhetorical tradition—brilliant in Burke and Macaulay,
decadent in Churchill, now dead.” In marked contrast to Gandhi in
India and to Nehru who acceded to Gandhi’s moral authority joining
him to urge Indians not to help the British war effort, Desani encouraged
Hindus like everyone else to resist German and Japanese enslavement.
Desani wrote Hatterr during and immediately after the war, and
garnered international fame as well as sufficient royalties to allow him
to pursue his own interests. He returned to India and Burma in the fifties,
and often for hours secluded himself for meditation. Again he sought out
the proficient in Eastern spirituality, traveling as far as Japan for instruction
in a Buddhist meditation technique. Though he published the poem Hali in
1952 and occasionally lectured, Desani was mostly silent about this latest
round of sadhana. When he returned to journalism in the sixties,
we see complex reactions, however, and encounter an opinionated man. He
has practically become one of the seven sages immortalized in Hatterr.
Polymath in regular, lengthy contributions to the Illustrated Weekly
of India, Desani ranged over the foibles of the Foreign Ministry,
hooliganism on Holi, merits and demerits of English books and Hindi movies,
Nehru’s economic policies, and commercialism being imported from
the US. He also contributed short fictional pieces, some of the best of
which are republished in Hali and Collected Stories (1991). His
writing is always lively.
In 1968, Desani, approaching sixty, came to the U.S. invited by The University
of Texas as part of an Exchange Visitor Program, and joined the faculty
in Austin. He taught one course per semester for eleven years. In 1981,
he was visiting professor at Boston University. In the seventies, Desani
was a voice on campus for calm, non-ideological analysis amidst the tumult
of generational conflict and the anti-war movement, teaching courses on
yoga and Eastern mysticism. He remained opposed to Gandhiism then current
in the U.S. Professor Desani was much beloved by his students and a wider
community in Texas. Rotund, white-haired, handsome, and cheerful, he defied
the stereotype of the morose ascetic. Colleagues remember his superb Indian
cuisine. He was also a sophisticated gem collector. As a philosopher, Desani
was a skeptic in a venerable tradition of Buddhist anti-intellectualism
maintained by some of the most intellectual of writers in the long history
of Eastern ideas. His lectures had such titles as “How Is the Inexpressible
to be Expressed?” and “Down with Philosophy!”
Novelists who acknowledge a debt to Desani include Salmon Rushdie and Amitav
Ghosh. Ghosh writes that Hatterr employs at once “a profoundly
resourceful defence of certain non-Western spiritual and metaphysical ideas” and “a
technique of evasion through which Desani questions and undermines the
presuppositions of a certain kind of totalizing modernity.” Reissued
in 1970 and again in 1972 with a preface by Anthony Burgess and a new chapter, All
About H. Hatterr seems to be something of a cult object among a generation
of Indian writers. T. S. Eliot and E. M. Forster praised it when the first
edition came out in 1948. Burgess pronounces its speech “Whole Language
. . . not pure English; it is, like the English of Shakespeare, Joyce and
Kipling, gloriously impure.” In a review in Time, Christopher
Portersfield says that Hatterr is “one of those genuine
literary rarities, the lost-and-found masterpiece.”
*dates amended May 21, 2003.
| All About H. Hatterr, Aldor, London
|| revised edition, Farrar, Straus & Young,
New York, 1951.
|| further revised, Farrar, Straus & Giroux,
New York, 1970.
|| further revised with a new chapter,
Lancer Books, New York, 1972.
|| with further additions and revisions
in the Penguin Modern Classics
series, Penguin Books, London, 1972.
| Hali, Saturn Press, London, 1952.
| Dozens of signed columns, Illustrated Weekly of India,
| Mainly concerning Kama and her Immortal Lord, Indian
Council of Cultural
Relations, Government of India, 1973.
| Hali and Collected Stories, McPherson, Kingston,
New York, 1991.
Larry R. Faulkner, President
The University of Texas at Austin
John R. Durbin, Secretary
The General Faculty
This Memorial Resolution was prepared by a special
committee consisting of Professors Ignacio Angelelli (chair) and