COLUMN: The Unforgettable Hatterr

Updated 10 Apr 2017


There’s many a neglected genius in literary history. Sometimes, chance leads one to discover a work of extraordinary quality and we are surprised, even shocked, that neither our teachers nor our fellow writers had referred to it, assuming they’d read it, which often turns out not to be the case. Unlike paintings or movies or plays, which a person can experience as one of a social group, novels require one to sit alone for days, and poetry sometimes takes years for its music to be heard. Should one thus discover an astonishing new work, trying then to convey that exciting news to others is like playing a recording of Maria Callas singing ‘Casta Diva’ to the deaf — they never hear the music that takes one to another world.

There’s an exhilarating beauty that flows from human creativity, which originates from an urge to express oneself in a singular mode at the highest level that one can attain. Often, a longing for fame and riches sets off that urge, but for the artist any such success is incidental — welcome, but not essential — since no regard to, or expectation of, profit of any kind is the initial motivation for one’s craving to create that expression in a form of as-yet-undiscovered aesthetic configuration. You do it because a signal comes from your soul that you must do it, transform a vague apprehension in the mind into a solid, though always precariously speculative, image that redefines common reality as possessing a previously unfathomed meaning.

All About H. Hatterr, a novel by G.V. Desani, first published in 1948, is one such work: new in its form, original in the style of its language, with content that is hilarious and full of surprises. I’ve praised it highly before, but wondering if I still held that opinion — for one’s perception is continuously in a state of revision and qualification with each day’s new experience — I’ve just reread it to see how well it survives the test of time: not only does its superb quality hold, but it continues so brilliantly to astonish with its imaginative power and inventive language that I’m urged to proclaim my praise even louder than before, especially as — though in print in a definitive edition with an excellent introduction by Anthony Burgess — it remains neglected by professors and critics who are confounded by originality and prefer their literature to come bearing an instantly recognisable brand name.

It is natural for each generation to be impressed by some new trend which, though transitory, seems to capture the mood of the time and to give laudatory prominence to works reflecting that trend before it is superseded by the next sensation. It is equally natural that novels that draw their subject matter from the latest socio-political upheaval in the world are considered important and relevant by critics and the public and forgotten when the next socio-political catastrophe hits the headlines, but while such cycles spin fast into oblivion, the passing importance and attention given to those ‘relevant’ works tends to suppress a new work with a singular artistic approach, letting it fall into neglect from where its rescue by a future critic is a matter of chance and luck.

Then there is the question of a writer’s output. All About H. Hatterr is one of those rare works that end up being a writer’s one remarkable achievement — Catch-22 and Catcher in the Rye are two such examples where the authors of each failed to match that one dazzling originality with their other works, which, just as was the case with Desani’s, were products of forgettable mediocrity. But that one notable title — as with George Orwell’s 1984 — almost becomes a synonym for the author’s name, so inseparable is the association of the two in the popular mind. Hatterr is obviously not in the same class as the other three titles, which are distinguished more by their ideas and the appeal of their subject matter than by that elusive quality that raises a novel to a work of art, which is what distinguishes Hatterr: it has the intellectual charm one appreciates in the novels of Laurence Sterne and Denis Diderot. It has a quixotic madness about it, a surreal wildness of thought that makes it more sanely realistic than a work of flawless naturalism which, for all its superficial aura of conveying truth, rarely escapes being dragged by a current of artificial contrivance.

Having been published a year after the end of the Raj, All About H. Hatterr could indeed be labelled ‘post-colonial’ or ‘Indian,’ if one wanted to brand it with all the other cattle in the field — and perhaps has been mistaken for one and therefore marginalised. Given his use of English as it is spoken in the subcontinent, with native words included in the vocabulary (that initial ‘H’ of H. Hatter stands for ‘Hindustaaniwalla’), Desani’s creation of a very distinctive English speech set the example that was followed by many novelists from India and Pakistan, though none of his followers have created Hatterr’s charmingly persuasive voice. Even the rhythm of Desani’s prose catches the peculiar lilt of English as it is spoken in the subcontinent and precisely echoes its characteristic accent.

And yet, in spite of this Indian current, it would be incorrect to brand All About H. Hatterr as an ‘Indian’ novel as one would a work by R.K. Narayan. The latter is merely a writer of formula fiction of no lasting consequence, whereas Desani’s Hatterr has the timeless quality of works that fit no pre-established category but remain uniquely themselves. They surprise us with a fresh newness and previously unnoticed levels of meaning each time we re-read them, thereby generating that delighted wonder which one’s mind experiences the pleasure as that released by art. Though we hear an Indian accent, the voice behind Hatterr is unique, a creation entirely of Desani’s, just as the accent of the American South we hear in William Faulkner’s fictions convey a voice that is his unique creation.

In his introduction, Burgess calls Desani’s language “a sort of creative chaos” and states: “It is not pure English; it is, like the English of Shakespeare, Joyce and Kipling, gloriously impure.” That is not a blurb-writer’s exaggerated praise, but a correct observation by a writer who knows his literature. Among the many early expressions of admiration for Desani’s Hatterr, T.S. Eliot’s often quoted remark, that he had “not met with anything quite like it,” distinguishes it as a unique and original work, though Eliot’s “quite like it” — which one assumes implies a surprised delight — could equally suggest the opposite, for Eliot could sometimes be mischievously oracular when expressing literary opinion.

Hatterr himself is not Indian, having a European sailor and a Malayan woman as his parents, both of unknown origin, making him, he says, “50-50 of the species.” Adopted by an English missionary society, he invents his own name after escaping from the society and in the novel’s main seven chapters, goes about India not as one belonging to any religion, but simply as a human presence seeking knowledge from a succession of sages. It is as if Don Quixote had been reincarnated, with a character called Mr Banerrji as his Sancho Panza, and the two were in a constant battle against the windmills of ignorance, wanting the sages to provide meanings to the eternal questions concerning appearance and reality. Hatterr remains unenlightened, for each of the sages — whether he is a fancily dressed bishop or a guru wearing nothing but a loincloth — has set up an elaborate fraud to enrich himself. Even “the wholly Worshipful […] his naked Holiness Number One, the Sage of All India himself” proves to be a charlatan, his religious sanctity nothing but a moneymaking front. Each of the episodes is entrancing and hilarious, like the one in which, in order to win the sexual favours of a circus master’s wife, Hatterr submits himself to a circus act: alone in a cage with a lion who is served with a bloody piece of meat placed on Hatterr’s bare chest that the lion proceeds to lick clean. The language is so rich and original that to quote only a few sentences would not convey the delight and beauty of the whole.

It is a novel that perfectly exemplifies what makes for high quality fiction which offers renewed pleasure with each reading. While it engages the reader’s mind with its philosophical depth, All About H. Hatterr is a comedy, with many funny jokes. Some of the jokes are examples of how meaning can be manipulated by clever use of language — eg, as when a missionary priest is captured, slaughtered and eaten by cannibals, he is reported to have “sacrificed his life for faith. He gave the cannibals their first taste of religion.”

The principal, perhaps the only, interest of Desani’s other book, Hali and Collected Stories, is that it is written by the author of All About H. Hatterr. However, some of its pages do offer light amusement and a measure of intellectual delight that make it superior to common collections of short fiction. The title story ‘Hali’ would be striking for its references to Hindu mythology were it not written in a pseudo-Old Testament sort of language. Some passages — as in, “Long before time was made, the sky was the sky, the earth the earth…” — express ideas echoed by Biblical and Sufi thought, and possibly other mythologies.

I trust that Pakistani readers will cast aside any anti-Hindu prejudice and read stories like ‘Hali’ for the curiosity of immersing oneself in Desani’s evocation of a celestial drama. After all, no religious scruple gets in the way of our enjoying Greek drama with all those gods creating wild mayhem in the lives of ordinary people. In fact, whether it originates from the stories that comprise the beliefs of a tribe in the Amazon or of one in the Congo or the Ganges, all mythology — as Carl Gustav Jung demonstrates in his study of the collective unconscious — has a revelatory universal relevance. It is no more than stubborn prejudice, which is born from the vain need to appear superior, for dogmatic, sectarian believers to live under the delusion that they’re blessed by a special purity that exempts them from being held within that vast mythological web where dreams connect us with ancient humans and our stories are only repetitions of the tale Shakespeare identified as mere sound and fury, signifying nothing, and told, besides, by an idiot.

The columnist is Professor emeritus at the University of Texas, a poet, novelist and literary critic. His works include the novel The Murder of Aziz Khan and a collection of short stories, Veronica and the Gongóra Passion

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 9th, 2017