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, never married, and has no known descendants or surviving relations. Yet quite remarkably during a long and productive life, G.V. Desani helped shape world English literature and the voice India would have in literary affairs. He also made significant contributions towards understanding of the Indian bhakti and guru traditions and in interpreting the Buddha's earliest teachings for today's seekers and academics.

At some point in his young life, Desani's family returned to their home in Shikharpur, Sind, India (now part of Pakistan).Considered a prodigy, but difficult, by grammar school instructors and a naïve dreamer by his merchant-class family ("I like books," he insolently told his father, as he declining to sign up for the family business. "You like books?", his father retorted. "I'll buy you a bookstore!")

Another anecdote: "Boy, you don't understand," young Desani was told by a favorite aunt, upon being informed that the 17-year-old 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 winter in London (he stuffed newspaper into an overcoat to keep warm), Desani quite quickly became a sensation among London intellectuals of the day. Attractive, brilliant, charismatic, articulate, and supremely confident the young Indian was sponsored to self-study at national libraries. Over the next several decades, formally and informally, he was often called upon to explain India and "the Orient" to the ruling class of the British Empire.

A loner with a knack for attracting attention and generating enthusiasm among strangers, Desani was so often interrupted by rooming house neighbors wanting to engage him in conversation that he borrowed 5 pounds for each, returning the loan only when he was ready to move. After he got his own apartment he procured a (hopefully) unused coffin to sleep in.

Before World War II Desani traveled often between Britain and India, its largest colony. In England, he experimented with his adopted language, lectured (the most famous being a series called "India Invites"), and even took bit parts in movies produced in the U.K. When in India he worked as a stringer for British newspapers, took a stint as headmaster at the same grammar school he had once been nearly thrown out of and, on occasion traveled the countryside with a servant, collecting debts for his family.

Through the war Desani lived in London, where he worked as BBC-sponsored lecturer. When not otherwise engaged, he also experimented with his newly adopted language. These efforts eventually gelled around a lengthy literary effort which he dubbed a gesture, as it didn't well into other categories. 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 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 and its bastardized stepchild Indian English. 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.

Desani's All About H. Hatterr joined with James Joyce's Ulysses and Finnegans Wake in helping to flesh out the post-modern novel. It also greatly influenced contemporaries such as Saul Bellow and later writers, including Salman Rushdie. In recent years. 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, rapidly changing 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 quite well the spiritual disquiet that increasingly preoccupied the now-middle aged Anglo-Indian. About that year Desani returned to India to begin an urgent, highly personal spiritual quest that would occupy the next 15 years of his life.

An Intense Spiritual Quest

Unusually, having written a madcap spiritual adventure novel, Desani proceeded to live the life. 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 spiritual or mystical world or God connection. A man of enormous physical and mental energy, Desani earnestly sought out mystics and gurus all over India and — using bravado, abject devotion, a photographic memory, and ever-disarming charm — he collected 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. His conclusion: to avoid panic that would consume sparse oxygen you must have complete confidence in those who remain above.

Desani was one of the few devotees with a sufficiently wide worldview to recognize that the Indian ascetic guru/chela system occupied a unique place among the world religions. The obscure practitioners Desani encountered often saw him as a worthy recipient of their craft. The challenge of what to do with the gathered information, the experiences, and the memories and conclusions drawn 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 — in a Japanese Zen monastery — was not a success. Subsequently, however, he spend nearly a year in a Theravada Buddhist monastery in Rangoon, Burma.

As part of a small group of Western practitioners gathered to meet the Master upon commencing their practice, Desani scandalized resident monks by asking the Abbot — Mahasi Sayadaw — of Enlightenment, "How much does it cost?" The monk translator at first refused to interpret the insolent question. A solemn occasion was turned into pandemonium as the Abbot demanded again and again in Burmese, "What did he say!? What did he say!?" Once a translation was finally provided the Abbot, according to Desani, roared with laughter.

Soon enough Desani settled down into a tiny room where his assigned practice was 22 hours a day of intense walking meditation with one instruction: Observe. After a few months the Master told him, "You may go" and also authorized Desani to provide instructions in Theravada Buddhist Vipassana meditation. Traditionally such a dismissal would only be provided if the practitioner had attained at least the first of the four stages of Nibbana (Pali for Nirvana).

Columns, Papers & Short Stories

At age 53 or so, Desani began writing again for something other than his voluminous diary journals. Over the next three decades he produced a significant amount of world-class fiction and commentary. Many of his fictional 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. Many of Desani's powerful essays, written in the Sixties and Seventies, are also currently unavailable.

In Hatterr, through his Indian spiritual quest, and in his later years teaching in the U.S. in Austin, Texas and Boston, Desani delighted in debunking teachings that he considered "beneath contempt", a favorite phrase. Yet he had the utmost respect for genuine spiritual teachers — Hindu, Moslem, Jewish, Moorish or Christian — and their craft. He was keenly interested in then little known Nadi texts, reputedly ancient hand-written palm leaf inscriptions based on Indian astrology that were traditionally property of Indian gurus and their disciples. Desani was convinced that he had received readings from Nadi text purveyors relying entirely on documents written years before he was born that correctly predicted his birth location, name, and other obscure facts only he could know. His efforts to have these palm-leaf, handwritten documents carbon dated were unsuccessful. (A highly personal account of a reading from one of Desani's Nadi texts can be found here. The stream-of-consciousness "voice" of the manuscript is typical.)

Texas Years


Professor Desani, as he came to be called, 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 UT Austin with Raja Rao, another highly-regarded Indian writer. Desani taught Theravada Buddhism in the Spring; Rao taught Mahayana Buddhist in the Fall. Being the late Sixties, both classes had hundreds of students each semester. The two men could not have been more different.

As an instructor Desani exuded great confidence and a sense of personal achievement that contrasted markedly with the in vogue images of contemplative and retiring 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.

Post age 65 Desani became an American citizen and qualified for a driver's license about the same time. He loved the independence afforded by his '58 blue Thunderbird.

After retiring, Desani's 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.

On most weekends Desani would play host and chef to many of his former students for an afternoon and evening of projects which could 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 his tired workers would crowd into a tiny sitting room where Desani would serve one of his out-of-this-world curries punctuated by Lay's Potato Chips ("A very healthy food") and share one of his life lessons with a tired but still rapt audience.

Legacy

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

A major intent to write an autobiographical accounts of his mid-life spiritual quest — to be based on his voluminous diaries — was also "not willed", as Desani would have put it. He spent his last decade in increasing seclusion and failing health, cared for by some of his former students, all Americans. G.V. Desani died at 91 in a private home near Ft. Worth, Texas.

In 2007 the Harry Ransom Center, UT Austin, received his papers, including the original manuscript of All About H. Hatterr. A few other documents including pages from Nadi texts which Desani unsuccessfully attempted to get carbon dated were entrusted to Boston University during his life. UNICEF was the beneficiary of the rest of his estate and future royalties.

Nearly 15 years after his death, some of Desani's most cherished projects — described in detail in his University of Texas at Austin public lectures — are publicly unaccounted for. These include handwritten diaries from his years in India (1950-66), penned in Hindi and English and replete with Sanskrit references to encounters with traditional Indian gurus and their private traditions. Also, in his first years of his teaching at UT (1966-67), many of Prof. Desani's lectures on Theravada Buddhism were tape recorded and later transcribed. Disposition of Desani's personal library of rare books and artifacts that focused on Oriental religious and arcane endeavors, as well as numerous related drawings and illustrations, is also unknown.

Shortly after his death, Desani's collection of colorful gemstone rings was professionally appraised and then sold item-by-item to some of his former students. The modest proceeds of a lifetime's collection also 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 and commentary. 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 meantime you are cordially invited to send questions or comments to mail@desani.org. Emails of general interest will be posted on this site.

October, 2013   

Site contributed in memory of Blossom Burns and Ila Maberry.