Monday, September 19, 2005

Re-Introducing All About H. Hatterr

I sold G.V. Desani's All About H. Hatterr to my students as "the Indian Finnegans Wake." When I said it, I was thinking of the last time I tried to read Desani's novel, early in graduate school. It was a frustrating experience, and more a failure than a success really. Hence, the comparison to the Wake.

It's odd, because I'm not finding Desani's book even remotely as obscure now. In fact, it's pretty smooth going, and really quite funny.

Here are the fundae of Desani's life: born and raised in India, moved to England, where he wrote and published All About H. Hatterr in 1948. It was widely reviewed and even sold a few copies, but Desani never wrote another novel (he did revise and add to the text several times). Between 1950 and 1970 he got seriously interested in various forms of Hindu and Buddhist mysticism, and spent time at Ashrams in India, as well as meditation centers in Burma and Japan. Meanwhile, he was writing occasional columns for The Illustrated Weekly of India (a magazine that Khushwant Singh would later edit). Desani finally ended up in Texas, where he taught in the English department at UT-Austin (alongside Zulfikar Ghose) until the late 1990s. He passed away in 2001.

(A more detailed bio of Desani can be found at the University of Texas here)

Salman Rushdie has written in a couple of places about his debt to G.V. Desani's Hatterr. In the controversial preface to the Mirrorwork anthology of Indian writing (1997), Rushdie placed Desani at roughly the same rank of importance as R.K. Narayan (the two writers have little else in common). Here is Rushdie:

The writer I have placed alongside Narayan, G.V. Desani, has fallen so far from favour that the extraordinary All About H. Hatterr is presently out of print everywhere, even in India. Milan Kundera once said that all modern literature descends from either Richardson's Clarissa or Sterne's Tristram Shandy, and if Narayan is India's Richardson then Desani is his Shandean other. Hatterr's dazzling, puzzling, leaping prose is the first genuine effort to go beyond the Englishness of the English language. His central figure, 'fifty-fity of the species,' the half-breed as unabashed anti-hero, leaps and capers behind many of the texts in this book. Hard to imagine I. Allan Sealy's Trotter-Nama without Desani. My own writing, too, learned a trick or two from him. (xviii)

Yes, it's true, don't even try to buy a copy of this novel from Amazon. (I did, a couple of months ago. One of the associated used-book sellers emailed me after a week with an apology: "Actually, we haven't had that in stock for two years. Sorry, we'll give you your money back." I still don't own a copy; I'm teaching it from photocopies.)

One of the reasons many people are afraid of this novel is its reputation for slang-ridden obscurity. Actually, it's not that obscure -- certainly not as difficult as Ulysses (and not even on the same astral plane as Finnegans Wake). Moreover, the obscurity is generally literary, not linguistic. In the first 100 or so pages of the novel, I counted a total of ten Hindi words in the text. And most of those are 'Hobson-Jobson' words like topi (hat), which would have been readily familiar to readers in 1948. Novels like Manju Kapur's Difficult Daughters are considerably more dense with Hindustani (or Punjabi) words, and still seem passable enough to western readers.

Anthony Burgess, in his preface to the 1969 edition of the novel, is also careful to disavow the métèque label that dogged late colonial African writers like Amos Tutuola. F.W. Bateson coined Métèque as a way of referring to writers for whom English was a second or third language, who don't respect (or don't know) 'the finer rules of English idiom and grammar'.

It's not that such writing can't produce interesting effects. But successful forays into slang or, even further, dialect English, are rarely interesting to fluent English speakers unless they are carefully controlled -- by a writer who is quite confident (and of course competent) in the language. The writer may have a memory of learning English, but he or she cannot still be learning English at the time of the writing of the novel. Conrad, Nabokov, and even the contemporary writer Jonathan Safran Foer (Everything Is Illuminated) knew exactly what they were doing. So did Desani.

The mad English of All About H. Hatterr is a thoroughly self-conscious and finely controlled performance, as Burgess points out elsewhere in the same preface:

But it is the language that makes the book, a sort of creative chaos that grumbles at the restraining banks. It is what may be termed Whole Language, in which philosophical terms, the colloquialisms of Calcutta and London, Shakespeareian archaisms, bazaar whinings, quack spiels, references to the Hindu pantheon, the jargon of Indian litigation, and shrill babu irritability seethe together. It is not pure English; it is, like the English of Shakespeare, Joyce and Kipling, gloriously impure.

Though Desani doesn't have very much common with Joyce at the level of style, it seems appropriate to read Hatterr as a species of modernist experimentation.

For one thing, Desani shares Joyce's interest in tweaking the English canon a bit irreverently. Desani's canon is, however, a bit more fringey, having at its center the eighteenth-century classic, Tristram Shandy (full text at Gutenberg). There also seems to be the picaresque spirit of Apuleius here; some episodes read a little like they might have come out of The Golden Ass (full text at Gutenberg). Third is Lewis Carroll, whose "Mad Hatter" is alluded to in "Hatterr" (it's an amusing exercise to speculate on where the extra 'r' comes from). There are, in fact, dozens of sources in play -- my sharp graduate students spotted references to Everyman and Piers Plowman in the first chapter -- but the most prevalent literary reference point by far is Shakespeare. Some of Desani's Shakespearisms are simple comic misquotations, but others are considerably sustained (if still comically misapplied). One episode that stands out is the opening of "Chapter 1" (which, given the small avalanche of prolegomena, is by no means the real beginning of the book). It is a kind of remix of Hamlet. Hatterr, however, is playing the guard:

'All's well, friend Master Keeper o' Literary Conscience!
'The name is H. Hatterr, how d' you do?
'What of that?
'Well, thereby hangs a tale...

'List!' is what the ghost in Hamlet says ("listen!"). Here, however, I think Desani is playing around; "List!" also seems to mean "enumerate!" -- as in, explain yourself, damnit! The odd dialogue (I've quoted only a small part of it) is a kind of framing device for the novel that follows (in which, among other things, Hatterr will explain the origins and significance of his name, and, not coincidentally, offer many lists).

Though all of this playing around seems quite modernist in shape, early in the novel Desani self-consciously disavows any connection to the Bloomsbury scene (already for the most part dead and, er, buried by 1948). In the "All About..." section (signed and dated by the author, G.V. Desani), an autobiographical chapter that details the ostensibly 'real' experiences of the author in his quest to get the manuscript of All About H. Hatterr published, he details one encounter with a Miss Betty Bloomsbohemia, to whom he addresses the following:

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?

In short, Desani is saying, I'm really not trying to do anything fancy with all this Hatterr-speak. And why waste your intellectual acumen with my crazy little book? And no, I'm no modernist, not like you: nothing so pompous ambitious.

In the midst of this evasive self-acquittal is a seeming grammatical slip: "this book's simple laughing matter." There is apparently a missing indefinite article there ("a simple laughing matter"). It's possibly an Indianism (intentionally inserted), but the missing "a" makes meaning-making little bit slippery. Most obvious reading is self-deprecation... But perhaps Desani is also playing with the idiom "laughing matter"; it is the "matter" that is "laughing" (at the reader? at Miss Betty Bloomsbohemia?). If this were Joyce, there would also be a joke here about "mater" (Latin: mother), and maybe two or three others. It's not Joyce, but there still might be two or three jokes here, not on mothers, but on naming: the book's "simple laughing" Hatterr, who is mad as a hatter, never matter the mater.

* * * *
Not only is this book out of print, it's been widely overlooked by scholars of Anglo-Indian literature as well as 20th century literature more broadly. The most ambitious essay I know of is Srinivas Aravamudan's "Postcolonial Affiliations: Ulysses and All About H. Hatterr," in the anthology Transcultural Joyce. It is a witty, learned essay, but it is almost all about... Joyce (surprisingly thin on Desani).

The most helpful essay on Hatterr that I know of is M.K. Naik's oddly titled: "The Method in the Madness: All About "All About H. Hatterr" About H. Hatterr." (That's the exact title.) It's from Naik's 1987 survey Studies in Indian Literature, which is likely to be widely available at decent American university libraries. Naik's essay is especially helpful as a basic, straightforward account of the book: this is what happens, and here is what Desani is trying to do.

I might take a stab at my own essay on Desani at some point soon (hell, given the length of this blog post, I'm already half-way there). But my dream would be to do a new, fully annotated edition of the text, in the vein of The Annotated Lolita or Ulysses Annotated. I somehow doubt it would fly -- hard to imagine the market for an annotated edition of a book that no one knows about!

There is a decently long excerpt from the novel here.


Kanya said...

I think you are right on the money about the archetypal value of *All about H. Hatterr.* Probably the earliest satire on Anglo-Indian life and "Qui hai" culture. Desani is so hard to classify precisely because no one after him (till Alan Sealy's *The Trotter-nama*) seems to have written a satire of this class of people. Anglo-Indians were routinely satirized by the British (Jos Sedley and the nabob phenomena), but I don't know of any Indians trying to write mock-epics about the sahibs or the sahibs. The Eurasians were always low-life, abject or silenced. Kipling's *Kim* is, of course, masquerading as one. It's certainly time for a new edition! I am glad you said it was easier reading the second time around--I found it tough going when I tried and eventually abandoned it.

Scott Eric Kaufman said...


It's impolite to incite in your readers the desire to read books they can't even acquire through inter-library loan. What I mean to say is you're now obligated to scan your photocopies and create a .pdf to be circulated within the scholarly community...starting with me.

Amardeep said...


Yes, Hatterr is still completely unique. (I've never attempted the Trotter-Nama, though the excerpt that's in Mirrorwork is pretty brilliant).

And do give it a try again if you have access to a copy. Read it slowly, maybe doing parts aloud if you have the time. Some of the puns and wordplay only come out through that kind of attention to detail.

Scott, no copies at UCI? That's surprising. Scanning it to PDF would be a lot of work... but email me, maybe we could figure out something.

Onkar Singh said...


Just a correction - on the University of Texas biography it says he was born in Nairobi, Kenya, and not India.

Suvendra Nath Dutta said...

I was able to get this book through Amazon, and never able to finish it. Maybe now I'll give it another shot.

Lucy Tartan said...

Amardeep, how do you go about teaching a novel from photocopies? Do your students all have to make their own copies, or do you have something like class sets? I thought the book must be very small, but the copy in my library is 300+ pages. There is a novel I badly want to put on a course I'm running next year, but it seems to be out of print.

Anonymous said...

The book was availabe in India about 3 years ago. You could give Penguin India's wesite a dekko. They might still have it. If it is still available any exporter of books from India like vedam's can ship it to you.

Amardeep said...


It's a small graduate seminar, so the tree death entailed is only moderate. If there were more than 10 students, I would either scan the whole thing in, or just teach a short excerpt.

Oh, and I'm not using the final, extra afterward ("With Iron Hand, I Defend..."), "written" by H. Hatterr's "lawyer."

And anonymous, thanks for the tip. It's still there on Penguin India's website. But Vedamsbooks and aren't carrying it. (I think the rights are restricted, because McPherson still controls the copyright in Europe and the U.S.)

Still, I'll pick up a copy when I go to India this winter.

Builder said...

I agree with Scot. What a tease!

Qalandar said...

Amardeep: I was able to buy a hardback of this book from, in case you haven't checked that out...

Anonymous said...

I completely agree with you. I'm a B'COM grad. attempting to a post grad. degree in English literature and inspite of all my tries to get the story or the book - I could not grab a copy until now. There is something with the Indian writers. I have no issues with any other subject but 'Indian Literature in english' is the toughest subject, to find material for. Not all 'All about H.Hatterr', Alan Sealy's 'The Trotter-nama' reveals the same story.

Todd Katz said...

Thanks for the refreshing reintroduction of H. Hatterr. While he was a professor of philosophy in Austin, I was one of Desani's teaching assistants and editors over several editions of All About H. Hatterr spanning about 15 years). I can affirm that Desani cared deeply about every word, article, symbol, and instance of italics or boldface in his book.

He often talked about the fact that Hatterr would be a rich subject of annotation, but -- as your quote of Miss Betty Bloomsbohemia indicates -- he wasn't a big fan of overly intellectual analysis of his writings.

This brings me to your quoted phrase "simple laughing matter". Thinking this might be a typo I checked the earliest edition of Hatterr. No typo. Although I don't recall the details, I'm quite sure I would have at some point suggested either "a simple laughing matter" or "simply laughing matter". Obviously he demured.

However, the way I read it now, I think Desani had it right all along. There is a slight nuanced difference between "a simple laughing matter" and "simple laughing matter" if for no other reason than the latter doesn't imply comparison with something else.

Also wanted to mention that I've collected some biographical information and web references on Desani (including that drawn from the UT memorial resolution quoted above) at:

Of course I'll add this new comment in the near-term. You're definitely more than 1/2 way to an excellent essay!

Todd Katz

Anonymous said...

I have added your very learned comments on "All About H. Hatterr" in Wikipedia, here. Please feel free to correct the entry for accreditation or simply adding more. check out this page too. btw, i'd like to fund your "annotated AAHH" when i make a lot of money (which maybe as early as my next life)

wandering_star said...

I just thought I'd let you know that it looks like the NYRB are bringing out "All About H Hatterr" in early November. I've been wanting to read it since I read this post, so I have it on pre-order!

Anonymous said...

I read this book when I was admitted to hopsital for an emergency Hysterectomy age 57, no children, life saving stuff, I was on a long Nightingale Ward, with over 20 others. I read this book at night and laughed so much I had to bite the bedclothes, the nurse heard the weird choking sounds and ran up the ward to my bedside to find me with tears streaming down my face exlcaiming Iit's the book! That was back in 1987, I made sure I bought my own copy and when the new agers try to take me in with their Celestine Prophesies I just think Hell Bannerji! It's the Desert Island Book you save from the sea, Ok anayse if you will but it is wonderful, delightful and yes, I can imagine he wrote whilst the bombs were dropping because it is so funny.