Life of a 20th Century Adventurer

G.V. Desani was born in Nairobi, Kenya July 8, 1909 to Indian parents. He had little formal education, no college, never married, and has no known descendants or surviving relations. Yet during a long and productive life, G.V. Desani helped define modern and post-modern multi-cultural literature and establish the voice of India in English-language fiction. Later, as an essayist, Desani made unique contributions towards understanding the Indian bhakti and guru traditions and in interpreting the Buddha's earliest teachings on Vipassana meditation for today's seekers and academics. Nor did he shy from cultural and social commentary.

At some point in his young life, Desani's family returned to their home in Shikārpur, Sindh, India (now part of Pakistan). Considered a prodigy, but difficult, by grammar school teachers and a naïve dreamer by his merchant-class family ("I like books," he once shouted at his father, as he tried to answer a question about his ambitions. "You like books?", his father retorted, "I'll buy you a bookstore!")

Another anecdote: "Boy, you don't understand," Desani was told by a favorite aunt, upon his informing her that the boy would go to England and become famous, "you don't even know English." In fact, Desani ran away from home several times, ultimately arriving in Great Britain, penniless (and without English), at age 17.

After a chilled-to-the-bone first London winter (to keep from freezing he stuffed newspaper into a second-hand overcoat), it wasn't long before Desani quickly drew the attention of Brits fascinated by their huge, exotic, faraway colony. A loner with a knack for garnering the enthusiasm of strangers, Desani was so often interrupted by rooming house neighbors that he borrowed five pounds from each, returning the loans only when he was ready to move.

Attractive, brilliant, charismatic, and supremely confident, the young Indian found a patron in MP George Landsbury who arranged for Desani to have access to the British Museum and its library.

For the next 20 or so years Desani moved between India and the U.K. several times. He took small parts in British movies produced in the U.K. He worked as a stringer for British and Indian newspapers including The Times of India, he did a stint as headmaster at the same grammar school he had once been nearly expelled from. On occasion, he traveled the Sindh countryside with a servant, collecting business debts for his family, perhaps after his father died. Somewhere along the way Desani developed an abiding interest in India's spiritual heritage, the gurus and sadhus of India.

The War Years

By chance, Desani had just returned to London at the outbreak of World War II. In those days elements in India and the U.K. saw the war with Germany as a good opportunity for India to declare independence from Britain and neutrality in the conflict. The British Broadcasting Service (BBC) providing propaganda to the UK about their wayward colony and provided India with radio broadcasts supporting an abiding relationship with England. Desani, generally a life-long supporter of the Establishment, became a  BBC-sponsored lecturer and radio commentator. He broadcast educational programs in Hindi and English describing India's heritage and discussing its place in the modern world. Desani's only surviving lecture/broadcast was entitled India Invites, initially read at New College, Oxford in 1941.

In addition to Desani, BBC commentators included T.S. Eliot and E.M. Forster, among others. A key organizer of the effort was George Orwell, later to author 1984 and Animal Farm.

During the war, Desani's avocation became his writings, several of which he developed for broadcast on the BBC. His efforts eventually gelled into what he called a gesture. Sadly, as Desani dryly observed in his introduction to All About H. Hatterr, there was no market for gestures, only for novels. Later he learned that even the market for gestures described as novels (or vice versa) was modest.

Brief History of All About H. Hatterr

After being turned down by a number of publishers, All About Mr. Hatterr, as it was originally called, was published in 1948. The book was an immediate sensation with the British literati (George Orwell, author of 1984, took notable exception). It was also very favorably received in the U.S. and India. Over the next 40 years, Desani was to revise or expand his beloved book at least four times.

Hatterr made grand fun of all manner of social structure, stricture, status, religious instruction, and language itself, English, its bastardized stepchild Indian English, Sanskrit and Hindi. Yet the book also offered glimpses of a man seeking to interpret the human condition — despite its obvious shortcomings — as having — if not a higher purpose — at least a trajectory. Writing in 2015, reviewers still find new things to say about a nearly 70-year-old novel. A recent writer pointed out that until Desani published Hatterr in London, of all places, literary Brits had doubts about the ability of non-native English speakers to fully master the language. George Orwell, who had lived and worked in India, was a defender of English written by native Englishmen. He was none too pleased when Hatterr appeared and provided one of the few negative reviews of the initial printing.

In short order Desani's All About H. Hatterr joined with James Joyce's Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake in helping to flesh out an exotic, polyglotic, supranational novel that helped reinvigorate the Mother Tongue. Hatterr had a major influence on contemporaries such as Saul Bellow and later writers, such as  Salman Rushdie. The anti-hero H. Hatterr's hilarious and somewhat pathetic attempts to reconcile East and West deftly foreshadowed contemporary challenges of maintaining self, civilization, and true faith in a pluralistic, secular, rapidly-evolving world.

In 1950 Desani's highly personal poetic play Hali was published. It is difficult to imagine two more different works of fiction. While Hali may have puzzled Hatterr enthusiasts (E.M. Forster called it a "private mythology"), it captured well the spiritual disquiet that increasingly preoccupied the now-middle aged Anglo-Indian.

In 1952, Desani returned to India to begin an urgent, highly personal search for meaning that would fully occupy the next 15 years of his life.

An Intense Spiritual Quest

Having written a madcap spiritual adventure, Desani proceeded to live one. Reluctantly supported by a well-off cousin, Desani scoured the Indian sub-continent with the zeal of an investigative reporter searching for absolute proof of a mystical world or God or Goddess connection. A man of enormous physical and mental energy, Desani earnestly sought out gurus and fakirs across India and — using bravado, sincere devotion, a photographic memory, and disarming charm collecting all manner of oral teachings, tantric yantras, mantras, and arcane yogic practices. In one memorable incident, Desani had himself buried alive, a favorite trick of local yogis. Upon being dug up he concluded that to avoid panic that would consume sparse oxygen you must have complete confidence in those who remain above.

Desani recognize early on that the Indian ascetic guru/chela system occupied a unique place among the world spiritual paths. And that that system was being rapidly obliterated by modernity. The aging and obscure practitioners Desani encountered probably saw him as a worthy -- or least unworthy -- recipient of their craft. The challenge of what to do with the gathered information, the experiences, the objects, and drawing communicable conclusions from those years occupied Desani for the remainder of his life.

In the early 1960s, in a climax worthy of any grand adventure, Desani embarked on the most rigorous of spiritual disciplines: pursuit of Enlightenment. His first attempt — at a Zen monastery in Japan — was not a success. Subsequently, however, he spend nearly a year at a Theravada Buddhist monastery in Rangoon, Burma. Upon arrival at the monastery, Desani joined a small group of Western practitioners gathered to be introduced to the monastery's famous Abbot, Mahasi Sayadaw. Sayadaw gave an impromptu lecture, pointing again and again at a rough blackboard drawing that showed Nibbana (Pali for Nirvana) at the apex. Any questions? Desani scandalized the translating monk by asking of Enlightenment, "How much does it cost?" The monk initially refused to translate the insolent question. A solemn discussion was turned into pandemonium as the Abbot demanded in Burmese, "What did he say!? What did he say!? What did he say!?" Once a translation was apologetically provided ("He fables 'What does it cost?' ") Sayadaw, according to Desani, roared with laughter.

Soon enough Desani settled into a tiny room where his assigned practice was 22 hours a day of walking meditation with one instruction: "observe". After a few months the Abbot told him, "You may go" and also authorized Desani to provide instructions in Theravada Buddhist Vipassana meditation techniques. Traditionally, such a dismissal would only be provided had the practitioner attained at least the first of the four stages of Buddhist enlightenment. Desani neither claimed nor denied such.

Columns, Papers & Short Stories

At age 53 or so, Desani began writing again for something other than his diary journals. Over the next three decades he produced a significant and under-appreciated amount of world-class fiction and social commentary. Many of his writings can be found in Hali and Collected Stories, available from McPherson & Company. Others, such as his then-anonymous column "Very High and Very Low" in the Illustrated Weekly of India, are currently only available in libraries or on microfiche. A number of Desani's powerful essays, written in the '60s and '70s, are  currently unavailable.

In Hatterr, through his Indian spiritual quest, and in his later years lecturing at universities in Austin and Boston, Desani delighted in debunking spiritual disciplines and teachings that he considered "beneath contempt", a favorite phrase. He was particularly critical of Hatha yoga and the Westernized belief that self-realization is simply a state of mind. Yet he had great respect for genuine spiritual teachers — Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Moorish or Christian — and their craft. He was keenly interested in still little known Nadi texts, reputedly ancient hand-written palm leaf inscriptions based on Indian astrology that were the property of a class of Indian gurus and their disciples. Desani was convinced that he had received readings from such text purveyors that relied entirely on documents written years if not decades before he was born, and which correctly predicted his birthplace, name, and other obscure facts only he could know.

Texas Years

Desani first came to the University of Texas in 1967 as a Fulbright exchange scholar. Within a few years he settled in Austin where he shared a full professorship in Oriental Philosophy at the University of Texas with Raja Rao, another highly-regarded Indian writer. Desani taught Theravada Buddhism in the Spring; Rao taught Mahayana Buddhist in the Fall. Temperamentally the two men could not have been more different. Being the late '60s, their classes attracted hundreds of students.

As an instructor Desani exuded physical stamina, great confidence and a projected sense of personal achievement that contrasted markedly with the then-in-vogue images of contemplative and reticent gurus and Zen masters. He uniquely combined a highly competitive — if not occasionally combative — persona with a deep bow to the great religious traditions of the East. His teachings are respectfully summed up as follows:

The ancient goal of Enlightenment is real and attainable. However, the quest is difficult and is for the few, not the many. Others should simply try to live good, ethical lives.

Past age 65 Desani became an American citizen; he qualified for a driver's license about the same time. He loved the independence afforded by his '58 blue Thunderbird. His retirement daily ritual included lengthy phone calls to close associates, a drive to the campus to pick up mail, a courtly bow to the Philosophy Department secretaries and home again to work on his writings, revisions, and plans as well as to prepare for his monthly full moon prayer day and less rigorous daily spiritual duties.

On most weekends Desani would play host and chef to former students who came to help with projects that might range from re-organizing his wall-to-wall library to improving an object found in a junk shop by spray painting it gold. At the end of the day tired helpers would crowd into his tiny sitting room, wolf down one of his out-of-this-world curries punctuated by Lay's Potato Chips ("a very healthy food") as he shared one of his life lessons with an always rapt audience.

Through his years in Austin, Desani befriended and was aided by about a dozen students, former students, and several of adult women who, as members of the local Theosophy Society, met Desani by auditing his classes. In some cases, support was provided for as long as 30 years and included, all told, spending thousands of hours helping Desani with his writings, his housing and accommodations, his legal and literary affairs and, finally, arranging for and providing financial, companionship, and care management to an aging long-time friend and mentor. The group of helpers — once a close-knit if competitive near-family — are strangers again.

Desani spent his last decade in rapidly failing health, cared for by an ever-shrinking team of  former students, all Americans. He died at 91 in a private home near Ft. Worth, Texas.

Legacy

Desani's plan to publish a compendium of his writings — fiction and non-fiction — remains unrealized. The Rissala, as he called it, was submitted in the mid-80s to a major high-end literary publisher. By then the market for massive compendiums of living writers — never large — was  nil. (A former student and helper, John Hinds, has provided "Some Further Thoughts on Rissala" on his blog professordesani.blogspot.com.)

The writing of an autobiographical account of his mid-life spiritual quest — to be based on his voluminous journals — was also "not willed", as Desani would have put it.

In 2007 the Harry Ransom Center, UT Austin, received Desani's papers, including the original manuscript of All About H. Hatterr and his journals. A few other documents including handwritten palm-leafed pages from Nadi texts which Desani unsuccessfully attempted to get carbon-dated were entrusted to John Silber, president of Boston University during his life. At Desani's death, UNICEF was named  copyright owner of Desani's literary properties.

Some of Desani's property are  unaccounted for. In his first years of his teaching at UT (1966-67), a series of Prof. Desani's lectures on Theravada Buddhism were  recorded and later transcribed. Similarly, the disposition of Desani's collection of artifacts from his spiritual quests, as well as numerous related drawings and illustrations, is unknown.

Shortly after his death, Desani's collection of colorful gemstone rings was professionally appraised and sold piecemeal to former students. The modest proceeds of a lifetime's search went to UNICEF.



Editor's Note: Over the next several years we hope to provide further insight into G.V. Desani's teachings and to offer examples of his world-class fiction, commentary and lectures. Our goal is simply to chronicle, as fully as is permitted, the legacy of a man whose teachings and writings have, if anything, greater relevance today than they did during his lifetime. In the meanwhile you are cordially invited to send questions or comments to mail@desani.org. Emails of general interest will be posted on this site.

July, 2015   

Site contributed in memory of Blossom Burns and Ila Maberry.