(From 50 Writers, 50 Books, edited by Pradeep Sebastian and Chandra Siddan, HarperCollins. I wrote this for Pradeep back in 2010, when he called very excited about the idea of an anthology where writers from across (and outside) the country would talk about their favourite books, characters, landscapes. He and Chandra Siddan looked for books in as many Indian languages as possible, and in 50 Writers, Harbart talks to Bama, Vikram Seth and Indira Goswami have something to say to each other, and Vijayan’s Khasak meets Sobti’s Chandni Chowk. This was my char-anna tribute to Hatterji.)

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GV Desani: All About H Hatterr

There are literate, widely-read booklovers in this world who have not read All About H Hatterr. I know of their existence; I have even met some, but the thought that they exist is chilling. It’s like meeting people who have never read Tristram Shandy, or Gormenghast, or found themselves hallucinating, as Hatterr fans do, about swamis and multiple exclamation marks.

This has nothing to do with literary snobbery. GV Desani’s 1948 classic appears with dreary regularity on lists of books you must absolutely, positively read in order to be considered truly literary, and his astonishing hero has influenced writers from I Allan Sealy to Salman Rushdie. But the real reason for anyone to read Hatterr has to do with a quality rarely cited in critical texts—never again will anyone write a book with so much exuberance.

Desani, for instance, didn’t. His next work was the mystic Hali; and then he retreated into the comfortable life of the author-recluse. And in 2000, in the blurred newsprint of the obituary section of an Indian newspaper, next to the Antim Ardas and In Fond Remembrance notices, a brief postage stamp sized picture of a blurred, young Desani alongside two brief lines informed us of his death. By then, the image of Desani the writer had blurred along the edges as well, and All About H Hatterr had plunged into the obscurity of the remainder bin from which it would need (and receive) repeated rescues from its fans in the publishing and literary world.

Hatterr fans are a lonely breed today. We know not just the famous lines—“Damme, this is the Oriental scene for you!” “Sir, I identify it (the novel) as a gesture. Sir, the rank and file is entitled to know.”—but all the lovely obscure bits about swamis who trade in secondhand clothes stolen off their disciples and the fact that Desani managed to fit 13 exclamation marks into one paragraph. There is something slightly deranged about us, and a tendency (as you will have noticed) to digress, that we share with H Hatterr Esquire.

“The Issue: The following answers the question: Who is H Hatterr?” unleashes Desani’s torrential prose, and his unmatched ability to beguile you into trickster territory, holding your attention for three pages until he answers the question—sort of—on the fourth. Hatterr, born a year after Independence, was an early example of the only kind of Indian protagonist the Indian novel in English could possibly have: a man on the margins, a hero who belonged to two worlds and to neither. “Biologically, I am fifty-fifty of the species,” writes Hatterr, introducing us to his European, Christian father and his Malay, Oriental mother and swiftly kicking them offstage as he does so.

H. Hatterr cover

So there you have it: our first bona-fide homegrown, school-of-Indian-writing-in-English literary character was not Indian at all. Decades later, writing in partial homage to Desani, Salman Rushdie’s Saleem Sinai in Midnight’s Children would also be half-caste—Anglo-Indian, in his case. Hatterr belonged to the same no-man’s-land—territory claimed by three of India’s greatest writers, Rushdie, Desani and Saadat Hasan Manto, in works spurred by or written about Independence. And Hatterr, with his permanent logorrhea, his rapidfire, utterly Indian English patter, his frantic capering around a world that includes pukka British clubs and ash-coated fakirs, could belong to Manto’s lonely lunatic asylum. In Manto’s iconic short story, Toba Tek Singh, the lunatics occupy the no-man’s-land between India and the newly created Pakistan; Hatterr’s no-man’s-land, between the Orient and the Occident, is wider, but no less lonely.

Readers tend to miss the isolation of Hatterr on first reading: the man proceeds from swami to circus act to charlatan fakir with a frenetic speed and an unstoppable energy calculated to shortcircuit introspection. But it’s there in All About…, Desani’s introduction, showcased as the familiar loneliness of a writer without an audience, a voice rendered loquacious by the fear that he might be talking only to himself.

“Planning a rest, I submitted the manuscript to a typist place, to be typed, three copies please. It came back the same week. The rejection slip pronounced it ‘Nonsense’. Besides, the lady said, it wasn’t the sort of nonsense young girls in the office ought to see. I apologized, postscripting me a mere slave of the critics. Then I passed it elsewhere. And he referred it to a well-known psychiatrist friend of his (at a clinic) The doctor posted it, with an invitation to me to meet him—professionally. It was hawked around, three copies please, and finally kept by a very kind person. She typed a quarter and returned it. Her brother, a clergyman, was coming to stay in the house. Chance might lead him to the manuscript. I apologized again…”

This is still the voice of Desani, in character as Desani-the-author, not the voice of Hatterr himself. “In all my experience,” T S Eliot wrote famously of the book, “I have not quite met anything like it.” (The closest parallel to Hatterr’s voice might come not from Eliot, Burgess, or Joyce, or even Laurence Sterne, but from John Kennedy O’Toole’s Confederacy of Dunces.)

Here is a small sample, from a conversation between Baw Saw and The Sheikh: “I learnt of the ways of the Occidental people from my master Angus…. And I possess the Etiquette-Garter, the Honi! Soot quay Malay-pence! Soot quay Malay-pence! I am the Sheik of the London County Council, the ‘Ell See See! Behold, I am wearing my ‘Ell See See! Know, this is the source, the device and the secret of my prosperity! With this neck-wear, this mystic material, I am a burrasahib! A man! I am Eaten! I am Westmoreland! I am Shrewsbury! I am ‘Arrow! I am Charter’s House! I am Rugby-Football! I am Gun Co. Winchester! I am all-in-all! And CLC besides! With the aid of this neck-wear, I have helped others, given countless concrete lessons of pukka Occidental wisdom to the needy, as I myself once was! Verily, O beloved, I am a burrasahib! Listen to me and fathom the world! Pay the fees, and see the world! Ek dum, och aye! Och aye!”

Exactly ten years before Hatterr, Raja Rao had published Kanthapura, struggling, as he wrote in the Introduction: “One has to convey in a language that is not one’s own the spirit that is one’s own.” In the same decade, Mulk Raj Anand had struggled with the “unleavened bread” dilemma in his work, from Untouchable to Across The Black Waters: the complexities of conveying Indian speech, Indian ways of thought, in a language that was at once ours and alien. (Anand often came off sounding like Kipling in reverse, but he did try.) RK Narayan, from 1935 when Swami and Friends was published to 1948 when Mr Sampath came out, had found an easy Indian English that still seems neither forced nor dated. But even in the 1940s, after more than a century of writing in English, most Indian writers struggled to loosen their tongues, to find their own voice. Hatterr invented his own: a mongrel hybrid that transliterated Indian phrases, borrowed and mauled Greek and Latin tags, mocked English-English, and turned language into a three-ring circus, shifting from juggler to trapeze artist to clown.

It’s been over six decades, and All About H Hatterr has dated—in exactly the same way that Tristram Shandy or Burgess’ Enderby quartet has dated, the way any great classic should date. Desani resisted literary ossification—in a brief encounter with a Betty Bloomsbohemia (“the Virtuosa with knobs on”) in his introduction, he writes: “As for the arbitrary choice of words and constructions you mentioned. Not intended by me to invite analysis. They are there because, I think, they are natural to H. Hatterr. But, Madam! Whoever asked a cultivated mind such as yours to submit your intellectual acumen or emotions to this H. Hatterr mind? Suppose you quote me as saying, the book’s simple laughing matter? Jot this down, too. I never was involved in the struggle for newer forms of expression, Neo-morality, or any such thing! What do you take me for? A busybody?”

But despite his (and Hatterr’s) best efforts, the book invited analysis. Saul Bellow found that Desani was one of the few writers he could read while he worked on his own novel. Allan Sealy’s Trotternama—another classic that bounces dangerously in and out of existence, like Hatterr, revived by one generation, forgotten by the next—romps down the yellow brick road Desani had built for Indian writers back in 1948. “I learnt a trick or two from him,” Rushdie said once of Desani, and perhaps, more than the linguistic exuberance, what Indian writers received from Hatterr was permission. The book opens with a Warning! and a conversation between an Indian middle-man and the Author. “Sir,” says the middle-man, “if you do not identify your composition a novel, how then do we itemize it? Sir, the rank and file is entitled to know.” “Sir,” says the Author, “I identify it as a gesture. Sir, the rank and file is entitled to know.” But there is, the middle-man explains, no immediate demand for gestures. There is, however, immediate demand for novels, and the Author gives in.

Or perhaps not. Desani’s “novel” is really a breathless, joyful performance, a gesture stretched across 316 pages, and perhaps that’s why it remains unforgettable, despite its periodic descents into oblivion. Over the last few decades, Hatterr revivals have depended on the largesse of Western critics and publishers rather than the growing maturity and changing tastes of the Indian reader. And since the West has its own set of classics, and India is reluctant to claim any story that is not a success story, All About H Hatterr remains not so much lost as not yet quite found. Damme, that’s the Occidental-Orientale scene for you.

(Copyrighted: please feel free to link or quote, but do not reproduce without permission from HarperCollins.)