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G V Desani: All About H. Hatterr
If we judge this book by its supporters, it would be one of the best-known books around. Supporters include Salman Rushdie, who compared Desani to Laurence Sterne and said that Hatterr’s dazzling, puzzling, leaping prose is the first genuine effort to go beyond the Englishness of the English language (see Amardeep Singh’s page for more); T S Eliot said It is amazing that anyone should be able to sustain a piece of work in this style and tempo at such length, while Anthony Burgess, who wrote the introduction to the 1970 edition, said that Desani’s name should have been made for ever. It has been compared to both Finnegans Wake and Tristram Shandy (incorrectly on both counts, in my view). Yet this novel is like others which have a small coterie of ardent followers that praise it, but, for various reasons, it never seems to have much success with the Great Reading Public, either in India or in the West. It goes out of print and then some brave publisher reprints it, with suitable support from famous writers and critics but is somehow not taken up by readers and once again sinks quietly back into obscurity. It is not too difficult to see why. As the quote from Eliot above indicates, Desani’s style is, frankly, difficult. He writes or, rather, has H. Hatterr write as he thinks an educated gentleman of Indian origin should write. It comes across to Anthony Burgess as funny but to me it came across as somewhat ludicrous, a sort of stage Indian that might have been written by an Englishman of the period wishing to mock an Indian. I would imagine that there are some Indians, if not Rushdie, that cringe when reading it.
Hatterr is the son of a European merchant seaman (he does not know which part of Europe) and a Malaysian woman (he does not know which part of Malaysia). He has long since lost touch with both and was brought up by a pious Scot. The novel is a sort of Bildungsroman, as we follow Hatterr in his consultation of seven sages, in an effort to learn about life. He tries to spread his learning in each of the seven sections and ends up each section in discussion with his friend and semi-disciple, Banerrji. The first one, for example, has him on a journalistic assignment to visit The Sage (he seems to have no other name) who manages not only to get hold of Hatterr’s money but also all his clothes (this will not be the first time he ends up naked). We later learn that other journalists who had visited this same sage end up the same way. This event is preceded by Hatterr’s expulsion from the Sahib Club for not paying his washerwoman. The book continues in similar manner, such as his dealings with the second hand clothing salesman who again persuades Hatterr to remove his clothes in the search for truth or his meeting with the sage Punchum who, as his name implies, is very aggressive.
It can be funny in parts but much of the time I felt that the mock-Indian/English gentleman approach seemed very outdated and did not really work as well as it probably had in 1948. The flowing, pseudo-literary language may have won Burgess’ and Eliot’s admiration but it seems awkward and pompous in this day and age. There is no doubt that this novel was influential and was certainly one of the precursors of the many fine Indian novels being written today but, on its own, it just doesn’t quite stand up.
First published in 1948 by Aldor, London